Things You Might Not Know About Preeclampsia

Most of us hope for a “perfect pregnancy,” even though we know that the pregnancy journey is a highly individual one. Preeclampsia is one issue that can quickly turn a typical pregnancy into a scary roller-coaster ride and is a major cause of premature birth.

If you’re not familiar with preeclampsia, it is a pregnancy condition characterized by high blood pressure – but that’s not all there is to it. Preeclampsia occurs in women who’ve never had high blood pressure in their lives, and sometimes only causes a slight elevation in blood pressure.  

The good news is that preeclampsia can be treated – especially if caught very early – so both moms and babies stay healthy. The bad news is that the symptoms of preeclampsia (e.g., swollen feet, back pain) are often very similar to normal pregnancy symptoms, so many women don’t go to the doctor when they’re first having those symptoms.  

Knowing the signs of preeclampsia is the best way to catch it early on and knowing about the condition itself is one way to make it less frightening. Here are some things you may not know about preeclampsia:

More women develop preeclampsia than most people realize. Up to 7% of all pregnancies may involve preeclampsia! That’s because most cases are mild and don’t result in a diagnosis, though it can be a serious, life threatening condition.

Preeclampsia typically appears after the 20th week of pregnancy. Most cases of preeclampsia are seen during the third trimester.

Preeclampsia is more likely to occur during the first pregnancy. That doesn’t mean that being pregnant previously removes all risk, however. Having multiples, a history of high blood pressure, diabetes, a family history of preeclampsia, and other factors can increase a person’s chances of developing preeclampsia. But in some cases, preeclampsia develops without any risk factors being present at all.

Being an older mom or a younger mom can increase your chances of developing preeclampsia. Mothers in their teens and in their late 30s and 40s are more likely to develop the condition.

Mild preeclampsia may not have any symptoms at all. While some women report vision issues, aches and pains, headaches, weight gain, and a general feeling of unease, the most common symptoms that lead to a diagnosis are high blood pressure and protein in the urine. Regular testing is important after 20 weeks.

Preeclampsia affects both moms and babies. The condition can be dangerous for unborn babies because it change how blood flows to the placenta, leading to low birth weights or premature birth.

It can develop after a baby is born. Giving birth is the only way to “cure” preeclampsia but in some cases, it can develop as late as six weeks after a baby is born. For that reason alone, blood pressure checks should be a routine part of all post-natal care.

You can’t prevent preeclampsia, but you can lower your risk. Make sure your doctor knows if you have any risk factors like a family history of the condition so you can be monitored more closely during your pregnancy. For some mothers, it makes sense to have a home blood pressure monitor.

Those headaches might not be migraines. Headaches can signal preeclampsia, whether they’re severe or dull or feel just like your usual migraine. If you have a headache that just won’t go away or keeps coming back, tell your doctor ASAP.

Pain is another less known preeclampsia symptom. Pain in the abdomen or in the shoulders is just another part of pregnancy, right? Except when it’s part of preeclampsia! Even if you’re sure that your aches and pains are totally normal, let your doctor know about them.

There’s no way to prevent preeclampsia. We don’t really know why the condition develops and that means we don’t know how to keep it from happening. Low-dose aspirin and calcium supplements may help some mothers avoid preeclampsia but there’s no conclusive evidence that either of those measures will work for all moms.

It IS possible to treat preeclampsia. When doctors diagnose preeclampsia before 37 weeks, treatment may include bed rest, hospitalization, and/or medication. But in severe cases of the condition, as so many of us know, doctors will deliver babies prematurely to save both the life of the mother and the life of her baby.

Did you deliver prematurely because of preeclampsia? How early was it diagnosed? What symptoms did you have?

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Graham's Foundation

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