Eclampsia

Written by Brindles Lee Macon and Marijane Leonard | Published on July 18, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

Overview

Eclampsia is a rare but severe condition that causes seizures during pregnancy. Seizures are periods of disturbed brain activity that can cause episodes of staring, decreased alertness, and violent shaking (convulsions). Eclampsia affects about one in every 2,000 to 3,000 pregnancies, and it can affect you even if you do not have a history of seizures.

What Causes Eclampsia?

Eclampsia often follows preeclampsia, which is characterized by the appearance of high blood pressure after the 20th week of pregnancy. If your preeclampsia worsens and affects your brain, causing seizures or a coma, you have developed eclampsia.

Doctors do not know what causes preeclampsia. The following explains how conditions of preeclampsia can cause the neurological problems of eclampsia.

High Blood Pressure

Preeclampsia can cause your blood pressure (the force of blood against the walls of your arteries) to become high enough to damage your arteries and other blood vessels. This damage may restrict blood flow and produce swelling in the blood vessels of your organs, including your brain. If this swelling interferes with your brain’s ability to function, seizures may occur.

Proteinuria

Preeclampsia commonly affects kidney function. Protein in your urine (proteinuria) is a key sign of the condition. Your kidneys filter waste from your blood but retain beneficial nutrients—such as protein—in the blood to be redistributed to your body. If the kidneys’ filters (glomeruli) become damaged, protein can leak through these filters and be excreted into your urine.

Who Is at Risk for Eclampsia?

If you have or have had severe preeclampsia, you may be at risk for eclampsia.

Other risk factors for seizures during pregnancy include:

  • having hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • having headaches
  • being over age 35
  • being under age 20
  • being pregnant with twins
  • being pregnant for the first time
  • having a history of poor diet or malnutrition
  • having diabetes or another condition that affects your blood vessels

What Are the Symptoms of Eclampsia?

Because preeclampsia can lead to eclampsia, you may have the symptoms of both conditions. However, some of your symptoms may be caused by other conditions, such as kidney disease or diabetes. It is important to tell your doctor so that he or she may rule out other possible causes.

The following are common symptoms of preeclampsia:

  • swelling in your face or hands
  • headaches
  • excessive weight gain
  • nausea and vomiting
  • vision problems
  • problems urinating

The following are common symptoms of eclampsia:

  • seizures
  • loss of consciousness
  • agitation
  • headaches or muscle pain

Eclampsia and Your Baby

Preeclampsia and eclampsia affect the placenta, which is the organ that delivers oxygen, blood, and nutrients to the fetus. When high blood pressure reduces your blood flow, the placenta may be unable to function properly. This may result in your baby being born with a low birth weight or other health problems. Problems with the placenta often require preterm delivery for the health and safety of the baby. In rare cases, these conditions cause stillbirth.

Diagnosing Eclampsia

If you have already been diagnosed with preeclampsia or have a history of it, your doctor will order tests to determine if your preeclampsia has worsened or reoccured. If you do not have preeclampsia, your physician will order preeclampsia-related tests as well as others to determine why you are experiencing seizures.

Blood Tests

Your physician may order several types of blood tests to assess your condition. These tests include a hematocrit, which measures how many red blood cells you have in your blood, and a platelet count to see how well your blood is clotting.

Creatinine Test

Creatinine is a waste product created by the muscles. Your kidneys should filter most of the creatinine from your blood, but if the glomeruli do not work properly, excess creatinine will remain in the blood. Having too much creatinine in your blood may (but does not always) indicate preeclampsia.

Urine Tests

Your doctor may order urine tests to check for the presence of protein and the rate at which it is being excreted.

Treating Eclampsia

Delivering your baby is the only way to treat preeclampsia and eclampsia. If your doctor diagnoses you with preeclampsia, he or she may monitor your condition and treat you with medication in order to prevent eclampsia from developing. If you do develop eclampsia, your doctor may deliver your baby early, depending on how far along you are in your pregnancy. Early delivery may occur between 32 and 36 weeks of pregnancy if life-threatening symptoms arise or if medication does not work.

Medications

Medications to prevent seizures (anticonvulsants) may be used. If you have high blood pressure, medication to lower it may also be administered.

Home Care

Taking all prescribed medications, getting rest, and monitoring any changes in your condition are critical for managing preeclampsia and eclampsia.

Long-Term Outlook for Eclampsia

Both preeclampsia and eclampsia symptoms should disappear once you have your baby. If complications do occur, you may experience medical emergencies such as placental abruption. Placental abruption is a condition that causes the placenta (the organ that protects and nourishes the baby while in the womb) to detach from the uterus.

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