By Diana Barnes-Brown for Uterus1
Most health-conscious women with dreams of motherhood have heard the term “preeclampsia” at some point in their lives. But many still wonder just this condition is, and who is at risk.
Members of older generations can remember a time when maternity medical care was lacking, women’s health received a dearth of attention on national and global agendas, and pregnancy and birth complications were standard parts of motherhood. By comparison, today’s standards and capabilities with respect to women’s health care are much improved.
Unfortunately, preeclampsia is a condition that continues to baffle doctors and researchers, and in the last 10 years, its incidence has risen by roughly 30 percent. The Preeclampsia Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated reducing the effects of preeclampsia for mothers and their unborn children, notes that the condition currently affects roughly 5 to 8 of every 100 pregnant women.
Preeclampsia, previously known to doctors as “toxemia of pregnancy,” involves three major changes in the body: Dangerous elevations of blood pressure, dangerous retention of fluids in parts of the body, and kidney damage resulting in protein deposits in the urine. The condition usually starts after week 20 of pregnancy and is progressive, which means that it grows worse if not treated.
The changes associated with preeclampsia do not necessarily have discernable symptoms, but may cause any or all of the following:
• Vision changes, including temporary loss of vision, sensitivity to light, blurry vision, spots, auras, or flashes of light; or improvement of vision in farsighted women
• Excessive swelling that does not go away (edema)
• Sudden weight gain (more than 2 pounds in a week or 6 pounds in a month)
• Racing pulse, mental confusion, heightened anxiety, feeling “out of breath”
• Pain in the stomach, right shoulder, or lower back
• Abnormally strong reflexes (hyperflexia)
Possible preeclampsia complications for fetuses include lowered blood flow to the placenta resulting in lowered oxygen and nutrient flow to the fetus, and possibly low birth weight and other problems. Preeclampsia risks for pregnant women include dangerously high blood pressure and swelling in vital structures, stroke causing temporary or permanent disability, bleeding problems, kidney disease, seizures, and liver rupture.
Women who are pregnant and experience any of these symptoms should consult with their doctors as soon as possible. Also, they should schedule regular pre-natal checkups, so that they can be tested for the characteristic elevated blood pressure and protein deposits in the urine in the absence of other symptoms. Early detection of preeclampsia will help mothers-to-be avoid potentially life-threatening complications for themselves and their unborn babies down the line.
There are several risk factors for expecting mothers to be aware of, such as obesity before and during pregnancy, or a history of high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes or kidney disease. Also, women carrying more than one fetus are at higher risk of developing the disorder, as are teens and pregnant women over 40.
The best way to stop preeclampsia from progressing to more dangerous conditions is by delivery of the baby. If a pregnancy has not progressed to the point that the fetus can safely survive outside of the womb, more conservative measures can also be used, including bed rest, careful monitoring of salt and fluid intake, administration of IV saline solution and magnesium sulfate treatments. These treatments are designed to bring the negative effects of both high blood pressure and edema under control at minimal risk to the developing fetus, and may help to stabilize the pregnancy enough to allow mothers to carry developing fetuses to term, or to a gestational age when delivery is possible.
Because preeclampsia can usually be kept under control if detected early, expecting mothers who are diagnosed with the condition have every reason for optimism if they are careful to follow their doctors’ advice. Though preeclampsia cannot be prevented outright at this point in the progress of medical science, there are many ways of dealing with the condition when it does develop, so that expecting parents can look forward to the birth of their children with minimal worry about health dangers.