Pre-Eclampsia: A frequent reason Mamas are prescribed bed rest

August 25th, 2010

Pre-Eclampsia-Definition and Background

Pre-Eclampsia is a medical condition that only affects women during pregnancy and post partum. It is characterized by high blood pressure and protein in the urine, subsequently creating a toxic physical environment for both mother and baby. It is frequently the reason a pregnant woman is prescribed bed rest. While it can occur anytime during pregnancy, it typically occurs after 20 weeks of pregnancy, in the late second or third trimester. Pre-Eclampsia occurs in 5-8% of all pregnancies globally and is the cause of some 76,000 maternal deaths and 500,000 infants annually.

Pre-Eclampsia can rapidly become a serious or even fatal medical condition. Women should know the signs and symptoms of pre-eclampsia and report any signs or symptoms they have to their health care provider immediately.

Major Signs and Symptoms of Pre-Eclampsia

None – The problem with Pre-Eclampsia, much like other hypertensive disorders, is that it often has no symptoms.
Hypertension is known as “the silent killer” and pre-eclampsia is no different. Bed rest has been shown to reduce blood pressure and frequently reduces the signs, symptoms and complications that may arise as a result of pre-eclampsia. Even though bed rest is inconvenient at best and quite uncomfortable and physically challenging at its worst, if your health care provider prescribes bed rest for pre-eclampsia, Please follow his or her directions, even if you feel fine.

Hypertension – Hypertension or high blood pressure is defined as two blood pressure readings over 140/90 at two different times at least six hours apart. However, pregnant women with normally low blood pressure, such as 110/65, may be diagnosed with pre-eclampsia prenatally or in the post partum period when their blood pressure rises to 135/80 and/or they develop signs and symptoms of pre-eclampsia.

In 1990 the National Institutes of Health, National High Blood Pressure Education Program: Working Group Report on High Blood Pressure in Pregnancy issued the following research guidelines:

In the past it has been recommended that an increase of 30 mm Hg systolic or 15 mm Hg diastolic blood pressure be used as a diagnostic criterion, even when absolute values are below 140/90 mm Hg. This definition has not been included in our criteria because the only available evidence shows that women in this group are not likely to suffer increased adverse outcomes. Nonetheless, it is the collective clinical opinion of this panel that women who have a rise of 30 mm Hg systolic or 15 mm Hg diastolic blood pressure warrant close observation, especially if proteinuria and hyperuricemia (uric acid [UA] greater than or equal to 6 mg/dL) are also present.

For this reason, it is extremely important that women know what their baseline blood pressure readings are and at each prenatal visit they ask their providers what their blood pressure is. In this way, both health care provider and patient can be on the look out for blood pressure abnormalities and address them as soon as possible.

Swelling (Edema) – Swelling can be an insidious symptom of pre-eclampsia because so many women experience swelling of their hands and/or feet or even their faces when they are pregnant. However, when the swelling is significant enough to change your facial features, you should notify your health care provider immediately, advising them that you believe the swelling has become excessive. You may need to show them a photo of you prior to pregnancy, your driver’s license for example, to prove your point. In any event, if swelling concerns you, make sure it becomes a concern of your health care providers and that it is addressed.

Proteinuria – Proteinuria occurs when proteins, usually filtered by the kidneys and retained in the blood stream, leak into the urine because the small blood vessels in the kidneys have become damaged allowing the proteins to pass through. (This is usually due to your elevated blood pressure. Remember, pre-eclampsia creates a toxic physical environment to both mother and baby!)

Other Common Signs and Symptoms of Pre-Eclampsia

Sudden Weight Gain – Since weight gain is a hallmark of pregnancy, it’s often hard to discern between regular pregnancy weight gain and weight gain associated with Pre-Eclampsia. The rule of thumb is that if you start gaining more than 2 lbs per week or more than 6 lbs in a month, you should consult with your health care provider as this could be an indication of pre-eclampsia.

Headache – Severe, migraine-like headaches which are often one sided and dull and throbbing could be a warning that your blood pressure is dangerously high. Contact your health care provider immediately for evaluation.

Nausea or Vomiting – While nausea and/or vomiting is common in the first trimester, it usually abates during the second and third trimesters. If you have sudden onset of nausea and/or vomiting in the second or third trimester, contact your health care provider immediately for evaluation.

Changes in Vision – If you experience any sudden blurred vision, double vision, flashing spots, or sudden light sensitivity, this is another warning that your blood pressure may be dangerously high.  Contact your health care provider immediately for evaluation.

Racing pulse, mental confusion, heightened anxiety, trouble catching your breath – While all of these symptoms can occur in pregnant women, when they suddenly occur from out of the blue and especially if they occur together, this is cause for concern. Contact your health care provider immediately.
Stomach or Right Shoulder Pain – I want to be a bit more specific here. The pain you may be experiencing here is right upper quadrant abdominal pain, specifically, liver pain. The pain may be “radiating” or “referred” to the right shoulder, but its origin is in the liver. This pain requires immediate attention as it is an indication that the liver is under stress and you may be suffering from HELLP (Hemolysis-bursting of red blood cells, Elevated Liver enzymes levels, and Low Platelet count) as serious obstetrical complication. It is imperative that you be evaluated immediately if you have symptoms of HELLP to avoid more serious complications or even death.

Lower back pain – Low back pain is so common in pregnancy that it is difficult to distinguish between the typical low back pain of pregnancy and low back pain associated with pre-eclampsia. If you are unsure, certainly consult your health care provider. But consult with your health care provider immediately if the low back pain is present with right upper quadrant abdominal pain as this may be another sign of pre-eclampsia.

This is a cursory overview of Pre-Eclampsia and we will delve into the subject with more depth in coming blog posts. Just remember that pre-eclampsia can have serious medical consequences for both you and your baby including death, so if you are concerned about symptoms, consult with your health care provider and have an immediate evaluation.

This list of signs and symptoms is edited and reprinted from the list presented on The Pre-Eclampsia Foundation website. This website is a holds a wealth of information on pre-eclampsia; current research and resources for more information and to get more help and/or support.

Did you have pre-eclampsia during your pregnancy? Are you a Mama on Bedrest now for pre-eclampsia? Share your story in our comments section below.