Eclampsia is a severe complication of preeclampsia. It’s a rare but serious condition where high blood pressure results in seizures during pregnancy.
Seizures are periods of disturbed brain activity that can cause episodes of staring, decreased alertness, and convulsions (violent shaking). Eclampsia affects about 1 in every 200 women with preeclampsia. You can develop eclampsia even if you don’t have a history of seizures.
Because preeclampsia can lead to eclampsia, you may have symptoms of both conditions. However, some of your symptoms may be due to other conditions, such as kidney disease or diabetes. It’s important to tell your doctor about any conditions you have so they may rule out other possible causes.
The following are common symptoms of preeclampsia:
- elevated blood pressure
- swelling in your face or hands
- excessive weight gain
- nausea and vomiting
- vision problems, including episodes with loss of vision or blurry vision
- difficulty urinating
- abdominal pain, especially in the right upper abdomen
Patients with eclampsia can have the same symptoms as those noted above, or may even present with no symptoms prior to the onset of eclampsia. The following are common symptoms of eclampsia:
Eclampsia often follows preeclampsia, which is characterized by high blood pressure occurring in pregnancy and, rarely, postpartum. Other findings may also be present such as protein in the urine. If your preeclampsia worsens and affects your brain, causing seizures, you have developed eclampsia.
Doctors don’t know for sure what causes preeclampsia, but it’s thought to result from abnormal formation and function of the placenta. They can explain how the symptoms of preeclampsia may lead to eclampsia.
High blood pressure
Preeclampsia is when your blood pressure, or the force of blood against the walls of your arteries, becomes high enough to damage your arteries and other blood vessels. Damage to your arteries may restrict blood flow. It can produce swelling in the blood vessels in your brain and to your growing baby. If this abnormal blood flow through vessels interferes with your brain’s ability to function, seizures may occur.
Preeclampsia commonly affects kidney function. Protein in your urine, also known as proteinuria, is a common sign of the condition. Each time you have a doctor’s appointment, your urine may be tested for protein.
Typically, your kidneys filter waste from your blood and create urine from these wastes. However, the kidneys try to retain nutrients in the blood, such as protein, for redistribution to your body. If the kidneys’ filters, called glomeruli, are damaged, protein can leak through them and excrete into your urine.
If you have or have had preeclampsia, you may be at risk for eclampsia.
Other risk factors for developing eclampsia during pregnancy include:
- gestational or chronic hypertension (high blood pressure)
- being older than 35 years or younger than 20 years
- pregnancy with twins or triplets
- first-time pregnancy
- diabetes or another condition that affects your blood vessels
- kidney disease
Eclampsia and your baby
Preeclampsia and eclampsia affect the placenta, which is the organ that delivers oxygen and nutrients from the mother’s blood to the fetus. When high blood pressure reduces blood flow through the vessels, 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.
If you already have a preeclampsia diagnosis or have a history of it, your doctor will order tests to determine if your preeclampsia has happened again or gotten worse. If you don’t have preeclampsia, your doctor will order tests for preeclampsia as well as others to determine why you’re having seizures. These tests can include:
Your doctor may order several types of blood tests to assess your condition. These tests include a complete blood count, which measures how many red blood cells you have in your blood, and a platelet count to see how well your blood is clotting. Blood tests will also help examine your kidney and liver function.
Creatinine is a waste product created by the muscles. Your kidneys should filter most of the creatinine from your blood, but if the glomeruli get damaged, excess creatinine will remain in the blood. Having too much creatinine in your blood may indicate preeclampsia, but it doesn’t always.
Your doctor may order urine tests to check for the presence of protein and its excretion rate.
Delivering your baby and placenta are the recommended treatment for preeclampsia and eclampsia. Your doctor will consider the severity of the disease and how mature your baby is when recommending timing of delivery.
If your doctor diagnoses you with mild preeclampsia, they may monitor your condition and treat you with medication to prevent it from turning into eclampsia. Medications and monitoring will help keep your blood pressure within a safer range until the baby is mature enough to deliver.
If you do develop severe preeclampsia or eclampsia, your doctor may deliver your baby early. Your care plan will depend on how far along you are in your pregnancy and the severity of your disease. You will need to be hospitalized for monitoring until you deliver your baby.
Medications to prevent seizures, called anticonvulsants drugs, may be necessary. You may need medication to lower blood pressure if you have high blood pressure. You may also receive steroids, which can help your baby’s lungs mature prior to delivery.
Your symptoms should resolve within days to weeks after you have your baby. That said, you will still have a greater chance of blood pressure issues in your next pregnancy and possibly later in life. It’s important to follow up for postpartum blood pressure checks and exams after delivering your baby to ensure the disease is resolving.
If complications occur during the pregnancy, you may have a medical emergency such as placental abruption. Placental abruption is a condition that causes the placenta to detach from the uterus. This requires immediate emergency cesarean delivery to save the baby.
The baby may be very ill or may even die. Complications to the mother can be quite severe, including risk of death from stroke or cardiac arrest.
However, getting the proper medical care for preeclampsia may prevent progression of the disease into a more severe form such as eclampsia. Go to your prenatal visits as recommended by your doctor to have your blood pressure, blood, and urine monitored. Make sure to talk to your doctor about any symptoms you have, as well.