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Eclampsia Definition and Overview

Eclampsia, a life-threatening complication of pregnancy, is a condition that causes a pregnant woman, usually previously diagnosed with preeclampsia (high blood pressure and protein in the urine), to develop seizures or coma. In some cases, seizures or coma may be the first recognizable sign that a pregnant woman has had preeclampsia. Key warning signs of developing eclampsia in a woman diagnosed with preeclampsia may be severe headaches, blurred or double vision, seeing spots, or abdominal pain. Toxemia of pregnancy is a common name formerly used to describe preeclampsia and eclampsia.

There has never been any evidence suggesting an orderly progression of disease beginning with mild preeclampsia progressing to severe preeclampsia and then on to eclampsia. The disease process can begin mild and stay mild, or can be initially diagnosed as eclampsia without prior warning.

  • Less than one in 100 women with preeclampsia will develop eclampsia or (convulsions or seizures) or coma.
  • Up to 20% of all pregnancies are complicated by high blood pressure. Complications resulting from high blood pressure, preeclampsia, and eclampsia may account for up to 20% of all deaths that occur in pregnant women.

Eclampsia Causes

  • No one knows what exactly causes preeclampsia or eclampsia, although abnormalities in the endothelial system (the lining cells of blood vessels) have been described as a potential cause.
  • Since the exact cause of preeclampsia or eclampsia is poorly understood, it is not possible to effectively predict when preeclampsia or eclampsia will occur, or to administer any treatments to prevent preeclampsia or eclampsia from occurring (or recurring).
  • Preeclampsia usually occurs with first pregnancies. However, preeclampsia also occurs more frequently with multiple gestations, in women older than 35 years, in women with high blood pressure before pregnancy, in women with diabetes, and in women with other medical problems (such as connective tissue disease and kidney disease).
  • Obese women also have a higher risk of preeclampsia and eclampsia than women of normal weight.
  • For unknown reasons, African American women are more likely to develop eclampsia and preeclampsia than white women.
  • Preeclampsia may run in families, although the reason for this is unknown.
  • Preeclampsia is also associated with problems with the placenta, such as too much placenta, too little placenta, or how the placenta attaches to the wall of the uterus. Preeclampsia is also associated with hydatidiform mole pregnancies, in which no normal placenta and no normal baby are present.
  • There is nothing that any woman can do to prevent preeclampsia or eclampsia from occurring. Therefore, it is both unhealthy and not helpful to assign blame and to review and rehash events that occurred either just prior to pregnancy or during early pregnancy that may have contributed to the development of preeclampsia.
  • Other risk factors that have been described for eclampsia include lower socioeconomic status, teen pregnancy, and poor outcomes in previous pregnancies (including fetal death or intrauterine growth retardation)
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 12/12/2014

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Eclampsia in Pregnancy

When to call the doctor during pregnancy

When you are pregnant don't wait to call your doctor or midwife if something is bothering or worrying you. Sometimes physical changes can be signs of a problem.

Call your doctor or midwife as soon as you can if you:

  • Are bleeding or leaking fluid from the vagina
  • Have sudden or severe swelling in the face, hands, or fingers
  • Get severe or long-lasting headaches
  • Have discomfort, pain, or cramping in the lower abdomen
  • Have a fever or chills
  • Are vomiting or have persistent nausea
  • Feel discomfort, pain, or burning with urination
  • Have problems seeing or blurred vision
  • Feel dizzy
  • Suspect your baby is moving less than normal after 28 weeks of pregnancy (If you count less than 10 movements within two hours.)
  • Have thoughts of harming yourself or your baby

SOURCE: Pregnancy complications.

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Preeclampsia is a hypertensive disorder of pregnancy associated with proteinuria with or without edema.

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