By Dr. Schmidt

Many pregnant women have heard of preeclampsia, but few understand it unless it happens to them. Here at Women’s Health Specialists, we always want our patients to be well-educated and prepared for what may happen during pregnancy. Read on to learn about preeclampsia and what it means for you.

What is preeclampsia?

Preeclampsia is a disorder that can develop in the second half of pregnancy or the postpartum period and is characterized by elevated blood pressure and evidence of organ injury, most commonly in the kidneys resulting in excess protein in the urine. The liver and brain can also be affected. The good news is that hypertension and organ injuries typically resolve within days to weeks of delivery.

How often does preeclampsia occur?

Preeclampsia occurs in 3-4 percent of pregnancies and most commonly occurs at term (after 37 weeks gestation). It more often occurs in a first pregnancy or in women with other known risk factors or medical conditions such as chronic hypertension, diabetes, lupus and obesity; pregnancies complicated by multiple gestations; or a previous pregnancy complicated by preeclampsia or a family history of preeclampsia in a mother or sister. Women who have high risk factors or a number of lower risk factors may be advised to take baby aspirin in the second and third trimesters to decrease the risk of developing preeclampsia.

Why does preeclampsia develop?

We believe that preeclampsia occurs because of abnormalities in the early development of the placenta.   If the early placenta development is abnormal, it can result in a series of events that causes damage to the mother’s blood vessels and ultimately results in preeclampsia. It is not known why this happens in some pregnancies but not others.

What are the symptoms of preeclampsia?

Most women with preeclampsia don’t experience symptoms.  However, in more severe cases, there can be some. Symptoms to watch for include persistent severe headache, visual changes, pain in the right upper or mid part of the abdomen. Pregnant women who experience these types of symptoms should contact their obstetric provider. Other abnormalities that can result from preeclampsia include laboratory abnormalities (as a result of organ injury, such as elevated liver enzymes, elevated creatinine, low platelet counts), decreased amniotic fluid and poor growth of the fetus as determined by ultrasound.

Is there a cure for preeclampsia?

The cure for preeclampsia is delivery.  Medication may be used to lower blood pressure, but this does not improve the underlying disorder or prevent progression of the disease. If preeclampsia is diagnosed before term, it may be possible to monitor the pregnancy closely and delay delivery until term.  If delivery is being delayed, the mother and fetus will be monitored closely and if there is evidence of worsening disease, delivery may be indicated before term.

Can you prevent preeclampsia?

The best thing women can do when they are ready to start growing their family is to meet with their physician to determine how to optimize their health and minimize risks in pregnancy.  Steps women can take to decrease their risk of preeclampsia prior to pregnancy include losing weight if overweight; optimize management of diabetes and chronic hypertension by following recommended diet, exercise regularly and have regular follow-ups with their doctor to make sure disease is well controlled.

If you have further questions about preeclampsia or believe you may be suffering from preeclampsia, call your Women’s Health Specialists provider at (920) 749-4000.