Although it's relatively uncommon, affecting just 3.4% of pregnancies in the U.S. each year, preeclampsia is a complication that can have serious long-term health effects for mom and baby.
Preeclampsia is characterized primarily by higher-than-normal blood pressure during pregnancy, and may also involve elevated levels of protein in urine and a decrease in blood platelets or abnormal liver and kidney function.
Preeclampsia typically occurs in the third trimester of pregnancy, but can appear as early as 20 weeks - about half-way through the second trimester. Without proper medical attention, it can increase the mother's risk of organ damage and seizures, among other serious outcomes, and potentially lead to stillbirth.
It's possible for preeclampsia to develop without any symptoms at all, in which case it will likely be detected only during routine screenings. Symptoms include:
• Severe headaches
• Vision changes, including blurred vision and light sensitivity
• Nausea and vomiting
• Difficulty breathing
• Swelling of the arms, legs, hands, feet and face
• Abdominal pain, especially in the upper abdomen
The cause might have to do with improper development of the placenta, the organ responsible for providing a growing fetus with blood, oxygen and nutrients. When the blood vessels that supply the placenta are too narrow or don't function properly, which is common in women with preeclampsia, blood flow to the baby might be limited.
Despite the lack of a definitive cause of preeclampsia, there are factors that predispose women toward the condition:
• First pregnancy
• Family history of preeclampsia or a personal history in a prior pregnancy
• Age over 40
• African-American descent
• Being pregnant with twins or other multiples
Preeclampsia poses risk to moms-to-be during and after pregnancy. Although 75% of cases of preeclampsia are considered mild, and the condition typically subsides six weeks after childbirth, there is still the potential for long-term complications, including brain, kidney and liver damage, organ failure, stroke and heart disease.
The baby faces risks too, including impaired growth, preterm delivery and even death. Infants born to mothers with preeclampsia can be at an increased risk of blindness, epilepsy, learning disorders and cerebral palsy.
There's one sure cure for preeclampsia: delivery. If a woman has carried her child for 37 weeks (or longer) without serious preeclampsia-related symptoms, her doctor will likely induce delivery. Severe cases of preeclampsia could require delivery before 37 weeks.
If you suspect a problem, speak with your healthcare provider soon to help ensure your delivery is a happy and healthy one.
Dr. Stephanie Tootle is an OB-GYN at Memorial Health University Physicians Women's Care Bluffton. For more information, visit MemorialHealthDoctors.com.