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"Preeclampsia" — the word alone is enough to fill the minds of pregnant women and those who are trying to conceive with concern or even dread. Those who are embarking on their journey towards first-time motherhood with the help of books and web resources are sure to come across the term, learning that the condition, exclusive to pregnant humans, can quickly become life-threatening to mothers and babies alike, and that the only cure is delivering the baby.
The facts that preeclampsia can rapidly develop into an even more severe condition and that it seems to be shrouded in mystery doesn't help put pregnant women at ease one bit. Those who have already been through it once, however, are in an altogether more frightening position if they get pregnant again.
What Is Preeclampsia?
Preeclampsia is a rapidly progressing and dangerous disorder that strikes between five and eight percent of all human pregnancies, and affects both mother and baby. It typically develops after 20 weeks of pregnancy, though preeclampsia can indeed develop earlier in some cases as well as sometimes affecting women up to six weeks postpartum. The one key symptom of preeclampsia is high blood pressure.
Complications of preeclampsia include:
- Placental abruption, in which the placenta detaches from the uterine wall prior to delivery, putting both mother and baby at risk.
- Insufficient blood supply to the placenta, potentially leading to low birth weight babies and premature birth.
- Eclampsia, a very serious complication characterized by seizures that can directly cause brain damage, coma, and maternal and fetal death.
- HELLP Syndrome, a severe form of preeclampsia that can lead to liver damage, a breakdown of red blood cells, and a severely lowered platelet count. Ultimately, HELLP Syndrome can be fatal.
Headaches, weight gain, vision changes, and swelling all fit into the symptomatic picture lots of women with the condition will display — but not all of them do, and some report frighteningly few symptoms. High levels of protein in the urine, once considered the factor to differentiate preeclampsia from gestational hypertension, is no longer a diagnostic requirement. The latest data show that organ damage can occur without the presence of high levels of protein in the urine, and that urine protein levels don't predict how fast the condition is progressing either.
What Causes Preeclampsia?
Though definite breakthroughs have given us a greater insight into the root causes of preeclampsia in recent years, the underlying reason women get preeclampsia is still not fully understood.
Some of the key players likely are:
- Antiangiogenic proteins overproduced by the placenta inhibit the development of new blood vessels, a process known as "angiogenesis". Why this happens is of yet unclear.
- A lack of blood flow to the uterus during pregnancy.
- An overly inflammatory response to pregnancy.
- Several different conditions that inhibit the maintenance of blood vessels, including a calcium deficiency.
- Undiagnosed but preexisting maternal conditions including hypertension, diabetes, and lupus.
- Hereditary factors.
Women who have had preeclampsia before will be worried that they are at an increased risk of developing it again in a subsequent pregnancy. Just how high is this risk, and is there any way to reduce it?