What is preeclampsia, what causes it, and what are the symptoms?
Preeclampsia is caused by abnormal development of the placenta during the first weeks and months of the embryo/fetus’ life. When the embryo first invades the uterus lining, it receives nutrients from maternal blood vessels via root-like growths called villi. These maternal blood vessels typically change shape and grow wider to provide increasing amounts of nutrients to the developing embryo. If these blood vessels do not develop properly, the placenta will also most likely not develop properly, as it will not get enough nutrients. A placenta that has not developed properly can lead to “preeclampsia”.1 The first stage of preeclampsia is usually symptom-free and, during this time, the placenta releases various substances, including different proteins, into the mother’s blood supply. This leads to the second symptomatic stage which usually occurs after 20 weeks gestation. The main symptoms are:
- Elevated protein in urine (proteinuria)
- Kidney impairment2
Other symptoms include:
- Edema (excessive swelling or puffiness)
- Persistent headaches
- Sudden onset of nausea or vomiting
- Abdominal or shoulder pain
- Lower back pain
- Sudden weight gain
- Vision changes (sensations of flashing lights, blurry vision, seeing auras, light sensitivity)
- Anxiety and shortness of breath
If left untreated, preeclampsia can result in several life-threatening conditions, including full-blown eclampsia, a condition characterized by convulsions and coma, as well as multi-organ failure. Consequently, it is vitally important to recognize the signs of preeclampsia as early as possible in order to receive appropriate treatment and to avoid eclampsia.
Who is most at risk of preeclampsia?
Women most at risk of preeclampsia include:
- Those with a history of or an existing medical condition such as chronic high blood pressure, type 1 or type 2 diabetes, migraine headaches, lupus, a blood clotting disorder or kidney disease4
- Women who have already experienced preeclampsia in a previous pregnancy-there is a 16% chance you will develop it again
Other factors which increase your risk by a small amountinclude:
- Being obese at the start of your pregnancy
- Being pregnant with twins or triplets
- Age older than 40 years
- If this is your first pregnancy
- A family history of preeclampsia
Having 2 of these milder risk factors can substantially increase your risk.1
How can I avoid getting preeclampsia?
While there is no sure way to avoid this serious condition, there are things you can do which will help lower your risk:
- Taking a blood-thinning agent such as low-dose aspirin (75 mg/day)5
- Getting your weight down to a healthy level before getting pregnant
- Making sure your diabetes or other chronic health conditions are well managed
- Undertaking physical activity before you get pregnant as well as during early pregnancy6
- Stretching exercises have been found to be more beneficial than walking for women who have previously experienced preeclampsia and who are not following a regular work-out routine7
As well as avoidance of eclampsia, one of the main reasons to try and prevent preeclampsia is that, in the event of preeclampsia-associated complications such as severe hypertension or intrauterine growth restriction, the primary treatment is delivery of your baby, even when he or she is very premature.1 Consequently, this can have extremely detrimental effects on your child’s future health.
Preeclampsia is a serious condition but, taking measures to avoid it and knowing the symptoms to watch out for early on in your pregnancy, you can lessen its impact, both on your health and on that of your unborn child.
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