Preeclampsia and eclampsia are complications of pregnancy. In preeclampsia, the woman has dangerously high blood pressure, swelling, and protein in the urine. If allowed to progress, this syndrome will lead to eclampsia.
Blood pressure is a measurement of the pressure of blood on the walls of blood vessels called arteries. The arteries deliver blood from the heart to all of the tissues in the body. Blood pressure is reported as two numbers. For example, a normal blood pressure is reported as 110/70 mm Hg (read as 110 over 70 millimeters of mercury; or just 110 over 70). These two numbers represent two measurements, the systolic pressure and the diastolic pressure. The systolic pressure (the first number in the example; 110/70 mm Hg) measures the peak pressure of the blood against the artery walls. This higher pressure occurs as blood is being pumped out of the heart and into the circulatory system. The pumping chambers of the heart (ventricles) squeeze down to force the blood out of the heart. The diastolic pressure (the second number in the example; 110/70 mm Hg) measures the lowest pressure, occurring during the filling of the ventricles. At this point, the ventricles are relatively relaxed. When the ventricles are relaxed, the pressure in them is low, causing the pressure in the arteries also to be low.
High blood pressure in pregnancy (hypertension) is a very serious complication. It puts both the mother and the fetus (developing baby) at risk for a number of problems. Hypertension can exist in several different forms:
- The preeclampsia-eclampsia continuum (also called pregnancy-induced hypertension or PIH). In this type of hypertension, high blood pressure is first noted sometime after week 20 of pregnancy and is accompanied by protein in the urine and swelling.
- Chronic hypertension. This type of hypertension usually exists before pregnancy or may develop before week 20 of pregnancy.
- Chronic hypertension with superimposed preeclampsia. This syndrome occurs when a woman with pre-existing chronic hypertension begins to have protein in the urine after week 20 of pregnancy.
- Late hypertension. This is a form of high blood pressure occurring after week 20 of pregnancy and is unaccompanied by protein in the urine and does not progress the way preeclampsia-eclampsia does.
Preeclampsia is most common among women who have never given birth to a baby (called nulliparas). About 7% of all nulliparas develop preeclampsia. The disease is most common in mothers under the age of 20, or over the age of 35. African-American women have higher rates of preeclampsia than do Caucasian women. Other risk factors include poverty, multiple pregnancies (twins, triplets, etc.), pre-existing chronic hypertension or kidney disease, diabetes, excess amniotic fluid, and a condition of the fetus called nonimmune hydrops. The tendency to develop preeclampsia appears to run in families. The daughters and sisters of women who have had preeclampsia are more likely to develop the condition.
Causes & symptoms
Experts are still trying to understand the exact causes of preeclampsia and eclampsia. It is generally accepted that preeclampsia and eclampsia are problematic because these conditions cause blood vessels to leak. The effects are seen throughout the body.
The most serious consequences of preeclampsia and eclampsia include brain damage in the mother due to brain swelling and oxygen deprivation during seizures. Mothers can also suffer from blindness, kidney failure, liver rupture, and placental abruption. Babies born to preeclamptic mothers are often smaller than normal, which makes them more susceptible to complications during labor, delivery, and in early infancy. Babies of preeclamptic mothers are also at risk of being born prematurely, and can suffer the complications associated with prematurity.
- General body tissues. When blood vessels leak, they allow fluid to flow out into the tissues of the body. The result is swelling in the hands, feet, legs, arms, and face. While many pregnant women experience swelling in their feet, and sometimes in their hands, swelling of the upper limbs and face is a sign of a more serious problem. As fluid is retained in these tissues, the woman may experience significant weight gain (two or more pounds per week).
- Brain. Leaky vessels can cause damage within the brain, resulting in seizures or coma.
- Eyes. The woman may experience problems seeing, and may have blurry vision or may see spots. The retina may become detached.
- Lungs. Fluid may leak into the tissues of the lungs, resulting in shortness of breath.
- Liver. Leaky vessels within the liver may cause it to swell. The liver may be involved in a serious complication of preeclampsia, called the HELLP syndrome. In this syndrome, red blood cells are abnormally destroyed, chemicals called liver enzymes are abnormally high, and cells involved in the clotting of blood (platelets) are low.
- Kidneys. The small capillaries within the kidneys can leak. Normally, the filtration system within the kidney is too fine to allow protein (which is relatively large) to leave the bloodstream and enter the urine. In preeclampsia, however, the leaky capillaries allow protein to be dumped into the urine. The development of protein in the urine is very serious, and often results in a low birth weight baby. These babies have a higher risk of complications, including death.
- Blood pressure. In preeclampsia, the volume of circulating blood is lower than normal because fluid is leaking into other parts of the body. The heart tries to make up for this by pumping a larger quantity of blood with each contraction. Blood vessels usually expand in diameter (dilate) in this situation to decrease the work load on the heart. In preeclampsia, however, the blood vessels are abnormally constricted, causing the heart to work even harder to pump against the small diameters of the vessels. This causes an increase in blood pressure.
Diagnosing preeclampsia may be accomplished by noting painless swelling of the arms, legs, and/or face, in addition to abnormal weight gain. The patient's blood pressure is taken during every doctor's visit during pregnancy. An increase of 30 mm Hg in the systolic pressure, or 15 mm Hg in the diastolic pressure, or a blood pressure reading greater than 140/90 mm Hg is considered indicative of preeclampsia. A simple laboratory test in the doctor's office can indicate the presence of protein in a urine sample (a dipstick test). A more exact measurement of the amount of protein in the urine can be obtained by collecting urine for 24-hours, and then testing it in a laboratory to determine the actual quantity of protein present. A 24 hour urine specimen containing more than 500 mg of protein is considered indicative of preeclampsia.
With mild preeclampsia, treatment may be limited to bed rest, with careful daily monitoring of weight, blood pressure, and urine protein via dipstick. This careful monitoring will be required throughout pregnancy, labor, delivery, and even for 2-4 days after the baby has been born. About 25% of all cases of eclampsia develop in the first few days after the baby's birth. If the diastolic pressure does not rise over 100 mm Hg prior to delivery, and no other symptoms develop, the woman can continue pregnancy until the fetus is mature enough to be delivered safely. Ultrasound tests can be performed to monitor the health and development of the fetus.
If the diastolic blood pressure continues to rise over 100 mm Hg, or if other symptoms like headache, vision problems, abdominal pain, or blood abnormalities develop, then the patient may require medications to prevent seizures. Magnesium sulfate is commonly given through a needle in a vein (intravenous, or IV). Medications that lower blood pressure (antihypertensives drugs) are reserved for patients with very high diastolic pressures (over 110 mm Hg), because lowering the blood pressure will decrease the amount of blood reaching the fetus. This places the fetus at risk for oxygen deprivation. If preeclampsia appears to be progressing toward true eclampsia, then medications may be given in order to start labor. Babies can usually be delivered vaginally. After the baby is delivered, the woman's blood pressure and other vital signs will usually begin to return to normal quickly.
The prognosis in preeeclampsia and eclampsia depends on how carefully a patient is monitored. Very careful, consistent monitoring allows quick decisions to be made, and improves the woman's prognosis. Still, the most common causes of death in pregnant women are related to high blood pressure.
About 33% of all patients with preeclampsia will have the condition again with later pregnancies. Eclampsia occurs in about 1 out of every 200 women with preeclampsia. If not treated, eclampsia is almost always fatal.
More information on how preeclampsia and eclampsia develop is needed before recommendations can be made on how to prevent these conditions. Research is being done with patients in high risk groups to see if calcium supplementation, aspirin, or fish oil supplementation may help prevent preeclampsia. Most importantly, it is clear that careful monitoring during pregnancy is necessary to diagnose preeclampsia early. Although even carefully monitored patients may develop preeclampsia and eclampsia, close monitoring by practitioners will help decrease the complications of these conditions.
- The tiniest blood vessels with the smallest diameter. These vessels receive blood from the arterioles and deliver blood to the venules.
- The phase of blood circulation in which the heart's pumping chambers (ventricles) are being filled with blood. During this phase, the ventricles are at their most relaxed, and the pressure against the walls of the arteries is at its lowest.
- The organ which provides oxygen and nutrition from the mother to the fetus during pregnancy. The placenta is attached to the wall of the uterus and leads to the fetus via the umbilical cord.
- Placental abruption
- An abnormal separation of the placenta from the uterus before the birth of the baby, with subsequent heavy uterine bleeding. Normally, the baby is born first and then the placenta is delivered within a half hour.
- The phase of blood circulation in which the heart's pumping chambers (ventricles) are actively pumping blood. The ventricles are squeezing down (contracting) forcefully, and the pressure against the walls of the arteries is at its highest.
- Urine dipstick test
- A test using a small, chemically treated strip that is dipped into a urine sample; in testing for protein, an area on the strip changes color depending on the amount of protein (if any) in the urine.
- The muscular organ that contains the developing baby during pregnancy.
- The two chambers of the heart that are involved in pumping blood. The right ventricle pumps blood into the lungs to receive oxygen. The left ventricle pumps blood into the circulation of the body to deliver oxygen to all of the body's organs and tissues.
For Your Information
- Cunningham, F. Gary, et al. Williams Obstetrics, 20th Edition. Stamford, CT: Appleton & Lange, 1997.
- Mabie, William C., and Baha M. Sibai. "Hypertensive States of Pregnancy." In Current Obstetric and Gynecologic Diagnosis and Treatment, edited by Alan H. DeCherney and Martin L. Pernoll. Norwalk, CT: Appleton & Lange, 1994.
- Caritis, Steve, et al. "Low-Dose Aspirin to Prevent Preeclampsia in Women at High Risk." The New England Journal of Medicine 338, no. 11 (March 12, 1998): 701+.
- Kirchner, Jeffrey T. "Calcium Supplementation and Prevention of Preeclampsia." American Family Physician 57, no. 4 (February 15, 1998): 791+.
- Penny, J. A. "Blood Pressure Measurement in Severe Preeclampsia." The Lancet 349, no. 9064 (May 24, 1997): 1518.
- Pipkin, F. Broughton. "The Hypertensive Disorders of Pregnancy." British Medical Journal 311, no. 7005 (September 2, 1995): 609+.
- Roberts, James M. "Prevention or Early Treatment of Preeclampsia." The New England Journal of Medicine 337, no. 2 (July 10, 1997): 124+.
- The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. 409 12th St., SW, PO Box 96920, Washington, DC. 20090-6920. http://222.acog.com.
Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. Gale Research, 1999.