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Facts and definition of eclampsia

Patient Comments
  • Eclampsia, a life-threatening complication of pregnancy.
  • Eclampsia 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 and symptoms for the development of eclampsia in a woman previously diagnosed with preeclampsia include
  • There has never been any evidence to suggest an orderly evolution of disease beginning with mild preeclampsia with progression to severe preeclampsia and ultimately to eclampsia. The disease process can be recognized in its mildest form and remain so throughout pregnancy, or it can present as full-blown eclampsia.
  • Less than one in 100 women with preeclampsia will develop eclampsia (characterized by seizures and/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 maternal deaths.
  • Toxemia of pregnancy is a common name formerly used to describe preeclampsia and/or eclampsia.

What causes eclampsia?

  • No one knows what exactly causes preeclampsia or eclampsia, although abnormalities in the endothelium (the inner layer of blood vessel walls) have been considered 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 enact any preventative measures that might prevent these problems from developing.
  • Preeclampsia usually occurs during an initial (first) pregnancy.

What are the risk factors for eclampsia?

  • Preeclampsia also occurs more frequently in women with multiple gestations, who are older than 35 years, who had high blood pressure prior to pregnancy, are diabetic, and have other medical problems (such as connective tissue and kidney diseases).
  • Obese women have a higher risk of preeclampsia and eclampsia than women of normal weight.
  • For unknown reasons, African American women are more likely to develop preeclampsia and/or eclampsia than white women.
  • Preeclampsia occurs more frequently within families, although a genetic basis for this has not been determined.
  • Preeclampsia is associated with disorders of the placenta, such as excess or diminished placental mass or an abnormal position of the placenta on the wall of the uterus.
  • Preeclampsia is associated with hydatidiform molar pregnancies, in which normal placental or fetal tissue may be absent.
  • Nothing can be done pre-emptively to prevent the development of preeclampsia or eclampsia.
  • Other risk factors for eclampsia include lower socioeconomic status, teen pregnancy, and poor outcomes during previous pregnancies (including fetal death or intrauterine growth restriction).
Last Reviewed 11/21/2017

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The eMedicineHealth doctors ask about Eclampsia:

Eclampsia - Experience

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Eclampsia - Signs and Symptoms

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Eclampsia - Medications

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Pre-eclampsia Signs and Symptoms During Pregnancy

The various changes and symptoms that occur with preeclampsia vary according to the organ system or systems that are affected. These changes can affect the mother only, baby only, or more commonly affect both mother and baby. Some of these symptoms give the woman warning signs, but most do not. When they do the woman may experience:

  • Swelling in the legs or the face
  • Rapid weight gain
  • Headaches
  • Pain in the upper abdomen (liver pain)
  • High blood pressure

Read What Your Physician is Reading on Medscape

Pregnancy, Eclampsia »

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

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