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Preeclampsia: What is it and why it happens during pregnancy

Updated: Nov 1, 2023

Preeclampsia is a complication of pregnancy. This condition can cause high blood pressure, organ damage, and proteinuria, which is a high level of protein in the urine and is a marker of kidney impairment. It may develop after delivery of a baby which is known as postpartum preeclampsia.

May being Preeclampsia Awareness Month and we want to educate others on this common condition and what you can do if you're diagnosed.

What is preeclampsia?

Preeclampsia is a serious disease of pregnancy associated with hypertension (high blood pressure) that develops during pregnancy. Around 5-8% of all pregnancies (with numbers on the incline over the past few years) are diagnosed with this medical condition. I have been diagnosed myself with preeclampsia twice in 2 pregnancies, so this topic is near and dear to my heart. Pre-eclampsia can come on fast and can have dangerous consequences for mom and baby, so being able to recognize the symptoms as soon as possible is extremely important. There is no cure for pre-eclampsia, the only option is to deliver the baby and placenta. Once a diagnosis is made, preeclampsia is treated with a magnesium sulfate infusion in the hospital, and this is to decrease the risk of mom developing eclampsia. Eclampsia is a seizure disorder of pregnancy that can lead to devastating results for mom or baby. Other medication is also given to control blood pressure.

What are the symptoms of preeclampsia?

You may have no noticeable symptoms. The first signs of preeclampsia are often detected during routine prenatal visits with a health care provider. Symptoms of preeclampsia can include headaches, blurry vision, light sensitivity and/or dark spots in vision, right side abdominal pain, swelling in your hands and feet, and shortness of breath. Severe preeclampsia symptoms may show up as a hypertensive emergency, decreased kidney or liver function, fluid in the lungs, low blood platelet levels, and decreased urine production. Other symptoms include new onset of protein in urine, right epigastric pain, a headache that won’t respond to medication, sudden weight gain, swelling, and altered vision. If you are pregnant and have started to experience any of these symptoms, notify your provider immediately.

Who gets preeclampsia?

There is still very much to be learned about this disease. Pre-eclampsia can happen to any pregnant person, but is most commonly found in those that develop gestational hypertension or who have hypertension prior to pregnancy. Having a family history of pre-eclampsia increases your risk, as well as having it in a previous pregnancy. The exact cause is still unknown, but there are several well founded methods to treat and possibly decrease the risk of developing pre-eclampsia.

Preeclampsia may be more common in first-time mothers. Healthcare providers are not entirely sure why some people develop preeclampsia. Some factors that may put you at a higher risk are:

  • History of high blood pressure, kidney disease, or diabetes

  • Expecting multiples like twins or triplets

  • Family history of preeclampsia

  • Autoimmune conditions like lupus

  • Obesity

How is preeclampsia treated?

Your baby will likely be delivered early if you are nearly at full term (37 weeks or more). You can still give birth vaginally, although a Cesarean section (C-section) may be advised in some cases. Sometimes it is safer to deliver the child sooner than to take the chance of having a longer pregnancy. You will be closely monitored if preeclampsia appears earlier in pregnancy in an effort to keep you pregnant longer and give the fetus more time to grow and develop. More prenatal checkups will be scheduled for you, including ultrasounds, urine tests, and blood tests. Your blood pressure may need to be checked at home.  If you are diagnosed with severe preeclampsia, you could remain in the hospital until you deliver your baby.

Other ways to treat or help with preeclampsia:

  • Aspirin is often prescribed during pregnancy to decrease the risk of preeclampsia. In addition to this, several options exist for those wanting to follow a non-medicinal approach to decrease risk of pre-eclampsia (please consult with your provider before beginning any sort of treatment plan, or if you believe you are at risk of developing or have developed symptoms of preeclampsia).

  • The Brewer’s Diet is commonly advised for women at risk of developing pre-eclampsia. This diet focuses on incorporating a high protein diet during pregnancy, as well as eating a well balanced diet with lots of complex carbs, nuts, and leafy green vegetables.

  • Calcium supplementation is typically recommended during pregnancy to help decrease your risk of preeclampsia. Pregnant women are advised to get 1,000 mg of calcium a day, and dairy is an excellent source. For those who do not consume dairy, kale and broccoli are excellent options.

  • Blood pressure management is advised to remain as active as you can during pregnancy. I typically recommend sticking with whatever activity level you were at before becoming pregnant, and adjusting as necessary as you progress or become more uncomfortable. Walking is excellent, low impact exercise that is easy to do throughout pregnancy and can be beneficial during pregnancy even to those who live more sedentary lifestyles.

Can I reduce my risk of developing preeclampsia during pregnancy?

There are several actions that can be performed before and throughout pregnancy by those who are at risk to lessen their risk of preeclampsia. These actions could involve:

  • Losing weight if you are overweight or obses prior to pregnancy

  • Controlling your blood pressure and blood sugar

  • Maintaining a regular exercise routine

  • Getting enough quality sleep

  • Eating healthy foods that are low in salt

  • Avoiding caffeine

My preeclampsia story:

My first son was born in March 2021. Overall my pregnancy was very easy, uncomplicated, and straightforward. In my third trimester however, my blood pressure began to elevate and at 36 weeks I developed a headache that wouldn’t go away, began seeing spots in my vision, and protein in my urine. After a very long induction and difficult labor, my son was born just shy of 38 weeks with luckily no complications. I remained on blood pressure medication, as my numbers were still higher than my provider would have liked. I got pregnant again in March 2022, and started aspirin and a higher dose of my blood pressure medication.

My second son was born in December 2022. My blood pressure was well controlled through my pregnancy, but started to elevate once I was in labor. Shortly before delivery I began having protein in my urine, and was again diagnosed with preeclampsia. My second son was born very quickly, and again luckily with no complications. I am still taking blood pressure medication, but have adapted several lifestyle changes to help bring it down and hope someday I can manage my blood pressure to a normal level. I am lucky to have 2 healthy children, despite the complications that unexpectedly arise during my pregnancies, and I want to do what I can to educate my patients on the risks and signs of preeclampsia as well as facilitate open communication and self-advocacy with providers to get patients the care they need.

In summary:

Make sure you attend your prenatal visits so that your health care provider can monitor your blood pressure. If you get severe headaches, blurred vision or other visual problems, severe abdominal discomfort, or severe shortness of breath, call your doctor right away or visit the emergency department. It can be challenging to determine when new symptoms are just a normal part of being pregnant and when they could point to a significant issue, especially if it's your first pregnancy. Headaches, nausea, and aches and pains are common pregnancy concerns.

Contact your doctor if your symptoms cause you any concern. The doctors at ANH Wellness will be more than happy to discuss your concerns and create a treatment plan to ensure a healthy pregnancy.

By: Dr. Megan Stavalone

Perinatal Certified Chiropractor at ANH Wellness

Disclaimer: "The information including but not limited to text, graphics, images, and other material contained on this website is for informational purposes only. No material on this site is intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment."

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