All About Womens Health

Pre-eclampsia in Pregnancy
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What is pre-eclampsia?

Pre-eclampsia is a serious blood pressure condition that only occurs in some women during pregnancy. It causes blood pressure to rise (which is often the most common and known symptom) in women who are pregnant.

Pre-eclampsia most commonly occurs after the 20th week of pregnancy, in those women who are affected by this condition. The high blood pressure of women with pre-eclampsia usually returns back to normal after they deliver their baby.

Around 5-10% of all women in Australia will develop pre-eclampsia during their pregnancy. Only about 1-2% of all pre-eclampsia cases are dangerous enough to threaten the lives of both the mother and the unborn foetus.

Pre-eclampsia is one of the most common reasons for early induction of pregnancy and for recommendation of a caesarian birth.


Signs of pre-eclampsia

Pre-eclampsia generally presents with no obvious symptoms initially, so it is often hard to detect until symptoms are more pronounced. This is why it is very important for pregnant women to have regular ante-natal care to closely monitor their progress throughout the pregnancy and to prevent complications of pre-eclampsia before they occur.

Pre-eclampsia most commonly causes the following symptoms:

More serious symptoms of pre-eclampsia are:

Risk factors for pre-eclampsia

While it is not possible to predict with a great deal of accuracy which women will develop pre-eclampsia, certain women are more at risk than others:


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Causes of pre-eclampsia

The cause of pre-eclampsia is not known, but since it does occur more in some families than others, there could be a genetic basis to this condition.

Scientists believe pre-eclampsia is most likely due to a problem with the placenta (the attachment between the unborn baby and the mother's uterus).

The most common theory for pre-eclampsia is that the blood vessels in the placenta do not develop properly which may affect the transfer of oxygen and nutrients to the unborn baby.


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How is pre-eclampsia diagnosed?

Pre-eclampsia is normally diagnosed through the following tests:

The best way to ensure that pre-eclampsia does not get worse and does not cause serious complications is to have regular ante-natal checks to monitor blood pressure for any signs of this condition.


How is pre-eclampsia treated?

There are a few treatments that are available for pre-eclampsia:

Delivering the baby early

The only total cure for pre-eclampsia is to deliver the baby (babies), because the mother's blood pressure normally returns back to normal after delivery and the other symptoms usually abate too.

If the pre-eclampsia occurs late in pregnancy, it is normal practice for the obstetrician to recommend early delivery, either through induced labour or caesarian birth. The risk for the baby is quite small.

The decision to deliver early needs to be based on several factors, including:

Other treatments can be used until the baby is safely delivered:

Magnesium sulphate

Studies show that when pregnant women with pre-eclampsia are given a magnesium sulphate supplement, it reduces their risk of developing eclampsia by about 50%. This is because magnesium sulphate is an anticonvulsant (and eclampsia is a condition which causes convulsions). Magnesium sulphate prevents eclampsia better than any other anticonvulsant medications and it is safe to use while pregnant (it does not adversely affect the baby). Magnesium sulphate is usually given by drip, by the doctor at the hospital, directly into a vein and is usually given at the time of delivery. This should not be self-prescribed!

Blood pressure medication

Some women are advised to take blood pressure medication for a short time if their pre-eclampsia is too severe. The blood pressure medication reduces symptoms, risk of complications and helps the pregnancy to progress further before delivery is required. Women taking blood pressure medication to manage their pre-eclampsia need to be strictly monitored by their obstetrician or family doctor. Examples of blood pressure medications are: Adalat, Nifecard, Aldomet

Bed rest

Bed rest is often advised for women with pre-eclampsia, but there isn't much evidence that it makes much of a difference. It is though, common practice to admit women with severe pre-eclampsia to hospital, to monitor them and their unborn baby.


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What are possible complications of pre-eclampsia?

Most women who have pre-eclampsia while pregnant do not develop serious complication, but some do. The risk of serious complications of pre-eclampsia depends mostly on the severity of the pre-eclampsia - the more severe it is, the more likely there will be serious complications.

Ante-natal care is mandatory for all pregnant women, but especially for those women in the higher risk groups, to reduce their risk of developing pre-eclampsia, treating it if it does occur, managing it properly to reduce risk of complications, thus ensure their pregnancy is as healthy as possible.

The risk of complications from pre-eclampsia is greatly reduced by early diagnosis, treatment and management.

Complications for the pregnant mother

There are a number of serious complications of pre-eclampsia that can occur for the pregnant mother, including:

Complications for the pregnant mother

There are a number of serious complications of pre-eclampsia that can occur for the unborn baby, including:


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How is pre-eclampsia managed in pregnancy?

All pregnant women should be referred to an obstetrician (specialist who delivers babies) before they are 20 weeks pregnant if they are in any of the following high risk categories for pre-eclampsia:

The obstetrician will make an assessment of your risk of developing pre-eclampsia (or possible complications) and will recommend a treatment plan for you. Regular check-ups on a monthly (or fortnightly) basis will be advised to ensure you have the best care possible.


Is pre-eclampsia preventable?

There is some evidence that pre-eclampsia may be somewhat prevented in some women through the use of the following:

Pregnant women should never self-prescribe with any medication or supplement and only take the above if they are recommended by their obstetrician specialist.

Note: Women who are at a higher risk of developing pre-eclampsia should discuss their alternative options with their obstetrician specialist before trying them because this is a serious and potentially fatal condition and needs extra care.


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  Last reviewed: 20 November 2008 || Last updated: 21 June 2009


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NOTE: Mega doses of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, or other supplements cannot cure illnesses and in fact can be very dangerous and produce toxic side effects and interfere with medicine you are taking. Always ensure you consult your doctor before taking any type of nutrient supplement.
Disclaimer: This guide is not intended to be used for diagnostic or prescriptive purposes. For any treatment or diagnosis of illness, please see your doctor.