Preeclampsia is a dangerous combination of high blood pressure and too much protein in the urine that can happen in pregnant women after their 20th week of pregnancy. It can range from mild to severe and often develops suddenly.
Preeclampsia affects 5 - 8% of pregnant women and their unborn children. It is the leading cause of maternal death worldwide. If not treated, preeclampsia can worsen into eclampsia, a condition that causes seizures and can be fatal.
The cure for preeclampsia is for the baby to be delivered. If it is too early for the baby to be delivered, your doctor will work with you to reduce symptoms and risk of complications until you can deliver safely.
Signs and Symptoms
High blood pressure -- above 140/90, if your blood pressure was normal before pregnancy -- at least two times within 7 days
Sudden weight gain -- more than 2 - 5 pounds in a week
Swelling of hands and feet -- this often happens in a healthy pregnancy, so it is not necessarily a sign of preeclampsia
Blurred vision or being sensitive to light
High levels of protein in your urine
Pain in the upper right side of the abdomen
What Causes It?
No one knows what causes preeclampsia. However, some women have a higher risk of developing it. Your risk may be greater if this is your first pregnancy, you are in your teens or over 40, you are carrying twins or multiples, you are overweight, you had preeclampsia before, or you have had high blood pressure, diabetes, or kidney disease.
What to Expect at Your Provider's Office
You may or may not have any symptoms of preeclampsia. If you do, you should see your doctor immediately. Women often find out they have preeclampsia during a routine prenatal checkup that includes a urine test and blood pressure check.
As you get closer to your delivery date, your doctor may do a non-stress test that checks your baby's heart rate to make sure your baby is getting enough oxygen.
If you have a mild case of preeclampsia, your doctor may recommend bed rest. You should lie on your left side, so the weight of the baby won’t press against important blood vessels. Drink a lot of water to help you urinate and get rid of excess fluids.
Your health care provider may want to monitor your blood pressure and urine every couple of days. The goal is to manage your symptoms until at least 36 weeks in your pregnancy, when the baby may be safely delivered.
If you have severe preeclampsia, it may not be possible to wait that long. Your doctor may admit you to the hospital, where you will receive drugs to induce labor, or have a cesarean section.
Your doctor may prescribe the following drugs intravenously (IV):
- Magnesium sulfate or hydralazine, to reduce your blood pressure
- Calcium gluconate, if your blood pressure falls too low
- Furosemide, to help you urinate more
In severe cases, your doctor may prescribe medications to lower your blood pressure. Your doctor may also give you corticosteroids to help the baby's lungs develop faster before an early delivery.
Complementary and Alternative Therapies
If you have preeclampsia, you should be under the care of an obstetrician. Do not try to self-treat preeclampsia with complementary and alternative therapies. If you want to use complementary and alternative therapies along with conventional medical treatment, your obstetrician should supervise all treatment. Some of the more common therapies are described below.
Nutrition and Supplements
Some supplements may help prevent preeclampsia but do not help once you have the condition. Others, intended to reduce symptoms once you have the condition, show mixed results in scientific studies. If you are pregnant, do not take anything without your obstetrician's approval. All supplements have side effects, and some may not be safe for women with certain medical conditions.
- Calcium (2,000 mg per day) -- If you have low levels of calcium or are at risk for high blood pressure, some studies show 2,000 mg of calcium per day may lower the risk of developing preeclampsia. Taking calcium does not seem to reduce risk of developing preeclampsia in healthy women, and not all studies show the same result.
- Vitamin D -- Some studies suggest that having low levels of vitamin D raise a pregnant woman's risk for preeclampsia. And one preliminary study found that taking vitamin D supplements appeared to reduce risk of preeclampsia. However, women in the study also consumed high levels of omega-3 fatty acids (found in fish oil), so researchers aren't sure if it was vitamin D or the combination that reduced risk.
- Folic acid and vitamin B6 may help prevent symptoms in women with a history of preeclampsia and high homocysteine levels.
- Vitamin C (1,000 mg per day) and vitamin E (400 IU per day) may help reduce risk of preeclampsia. Some studies have found no effect, however. Neither seems to help once you have the condition.
- Lycopene -- More studies are needed to confirm results.
- Magnesium was shown to help reduce risk in one study, but another study showed no effect.
- Coenzyme Q10 (200 mg per day) -- In one double-blind, placebo-controlled study of women at high risk of preeclampsia, those who took CoQ10 were less likely to develop preeclampsia than those who took placebo.
Treatments for preeclampsia:
These treatments require close supervision by your doctor.
- Studies show mixed results for l-arginine, an amino acid, given either intravenously (IV) or by mouth. Your doctor should determine the dose. Some studies suggest that it may help when given long-term throughout pregnancy.
- Magnesium sulfate, given by injection, can help lower blood pressure.
Herbs are generally a safe way to strengthen and tone the body's systems. As with any therapy, it is important to determine a diagnosis before pursuing treatment. You may use herbs as dried extracts (such as capsules, powders, and teas), glycerites (glycerine extracts), or tinctures (alcohol extracts). Unless otherwise indicated, make teas with 1 tsp. herb per cup of hot water. Steep covered 5 - 10 minutes for leaf or flowers, and 10 - 20 minutes for roots. Drink two to four cups per day. You may use tinctures alone or in combination as noted.
Note: Do not use these herbs without your doctor's supervision. All herbs have side effects, and some may not be safe for women with certain medical conditions.
No studies have found any herbs effective for preeclampsia. Herbs that have traditionally been used to treat mild high blood pressure in pregnancy include:
- Hawthorn berries (Crataegus laevigata)
- Cramp bark (Viburnum opulus)
- Milk thistle (Silybum marianum)
May help lower blood pressure and increase circulation.
Your health care provider will monitor you carefully for the first few days after you have delivered your baby. Your health care provider may keep you in the hospital for several days to weeks, depending on the severity of the preeclampsia. You should have checkups at least every 2 weeks for the first several months after leaving the hospital.
If you wear rings, take them off as soon as you start having symptoms. Swollen fingers can make it difficult or even impossible to remove rings, and they may begin to cut off circulation in your fingers.
Symptoms of preeclampsia can appear gradually and suddenly get worse -- or you may not have any visible symptoms at all. The best way to prevent any complications from preeclampsia is to get regular prenatal care. Your health care provider can spot early signs of preeclampsia and get treatment for you immediately.
Preeclampsia that happens early in your pregnancy, and preeclampsia that is severe, may put you at higher risk for heart disease. Your health care provider may recommend more frequent screening for heart disease risk factors.
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- Last Reviewed on 03/11/2012
- Steven D. Ehrlich, NMD, Solutions Acupuncture, a private practice specializing in complementary and alternative medicine, Phoenix, AZ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.
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This page was last updated: May 7, 2013