Eclampsia is a serious medical condition that affects women during pregnancy.
While symptoms often appear during pregnancy as a condition known as preeclampsia, the condition can go undetected until it develops into eclampsia. This can create additional complications during pregnancy.
What causes eclampsia and what are the risk factors for the condition? What symptoms can people look for during pregnancy that might indicate the development of eclampsia?
Eclampsia is a condition that only occurs during pregnancy and causes seizures, usually late in the pregnancy. It is a rare condition, affecting 1 in every 2,000-3,000 pregnancies every year.
The condition follows a high blood pressure disorder called preeclampsia. In preeclampsia, high blood pressure levels in the mother reduce the supply of blood to the fetus. This can mean that the fetus does not receive as much oxygen and nutrients as it should.
Many of the pregnancies affected by eclampsia or preeclampsia are first pregnancies. Around 70 percent of cases in the United States are in first-time pregnancies.
While eclampsia can be fatal if untreated, it is very rare for pregnant women to die from the condition in developed countries. Globally, eclampsia accounts for approximately 14 percent of maternal deaths. In the majority of cases, preeclampsia symptoms are mild and do not require any intervention other than monitoring and possibly diet change.
Preeclampsia vs. eclampsia
Eclampsia is the final stage of preeclampsia and requires immediate medical attention. Most cases are detected early in the pregnancy before they can progress to eclampsia.
While there is no cure for preeclampsia, doctors will often prescribe medications to lower blood pressure or anticonvulsant medications to prevent seizures.
With both preeclampsia and eclampsia, the only cure is for the affected mother to give birth. Mild cases of preeclampsia can be monitored throughout pregnancy to determine whether or not it is safe to let the pregnancy go to term.
More severe cases might require immediate intervention, often in the form of induction or cesarean delivery. Most commonly, a cesarean delivery will be required to prevent the rise in blood pressure that is often seen during childbirth.
Eclampsia does have some associated conditions that can either present as symptoms or stand-alone conditions. These conditions include:
- Edema: Tissue swelling caused by the buildup of fluid in the tissues. This usually presents as swelling in the extremities.
- Pulmonary edema: Causes the same fluid buildup in the lungs, which can lead to difficulty breathing.
- Headache: Possibly caused by the high blood pressure caused by eclampsia.
- Gestational diabetes: Diabetes symptoms caused by pregnancy, which can cause the baby to gain excessive weight during gestation.
Gestational diabetes can be treated with a combination of diet changes and medication. As stated before, each case of eclampsia is different. People could develop any of these symptoms or none at all.
Researchers have not yet discovered a definitive cause for the condition. Each case of eclampsia is unique, and the pregnant woman may share few or no characteristics with other women who develop the condition.
Most of the recent studies have focused on determining the risk factors for preeclampsia early in pregnancy to prevent or predict the development of the condition later on.
Risk factors for preeclampsia and eclampsia will vary from patient to patient. Factors that should be taken into consideration are:
- Pregnancy history: Most cases of preeclampsia happen in first pregnancies. Previous pregnancies with poor outcomes could also increase the risk of developing eclampsia.
- Patient age: Teen pregnancies and pregnancies in women over 35 have an increased risk of developing eclampsia.
- Family history: Cases of preeclampsia or eclampsia in family members could signal a genetic predisposition to the condition.
- Obesity: Women who are obese are at a higher risk of developing eclampsia than others.
- High blood pressure: Patients with long-term high blood pressure are at a higher risk of developing eclampsia than others.
Other medical conditions, including lupus, gestational diabetes, and renal disease, also increase the chances of developing eclampsia.
Symptoms of eclampsia can present at any time during pregnancy. There may also be very few symptoms, leading to a woman developing eclampsia without it being detected by medical professionals.
The most common symptoms of preeclampsia include:
- severe headaches
- excessive weight gain during pregnancy – more than 2 pounds per week
- nausea, vomiting, or stomach pain
- swelling of hands, feet, and face
If preeclampsia develops into eclampsia, symptoms may also include:
- muscle pain
There is no cure for preeclampsia except delivery of the baby. If it’s caught early enough, symptoms can often be managed with medicine and bed rest to keep high blood pressure down. Antiseizure medications can also be used to prevent a seizure from occurring in the event that severe preeclampsia progresses to eclampsia.
When to see a doctor
While pregnant women should be seeing a doctor regularly for prenatal care, they should schedule an appointment immediately if any symptoms of preeclampsia appear.
Additionally, anyone who experiences bleeding, severe headaches, or reduced fetal movement, should see their care provider as soon as possible.
During regular prenatal appointments, the doctor will also do blood and urine tests to look for:
- protein in the urine
- high blood pressure
- liver function
The presence of elevated protein levels in urine can be an early indicator of preeclampsia, as can decreased renal function.
Depending on the severity of the symptoms, the doctor might prescribe diet changes, bed rest, or medications to lower blood pressure and prevent seizures.
The only way to cure the symptoms of eclampsia is to deliver the baby. Allowing the pregnancy to continue while the mother has eclampsia can result in complications.
In most cases, the symptoms of eclampsia resolve themselves within 6 weeks after the baby is born. In rare cases, there can be permanent damage to vital organs, which is why it is so important for women to keep their care provider informed of their symptoms.
If anyone experiences any symptoms similar to the ones listed above, it is essential to make an appointment immediately. People should know their risk factors and make sure that they mention them to a doctor during their first appointment so that the doctor is prepared for the possibility of the diagnosis.
The overall goal is to have a healthy pregnancy and give birth to a happy, healthy baby. Paying attention to health is the best way to do this.