What Is Pre-Eclampsia?

Pre-eclampsia, also known as toxemia, is a pregnancy condition in which high blood pressure and protein in the urine develop after the 20th week (late 2nd or 3rd trimester) of pregnancy.This disorder occurs only during pregnancy and the postpartum period and affects both the mother and the unborn baby. The disorder affects 5 to 8 percent of all pregnancies according to the Preeclampsia Foundation. Currently, the only cure is delivery.How Do I Know If I Have It?

Pre-eclampsia usually has few symptoms, which is why frequent ob-gyn visits are recommended in late pregnancy. The condition is recognized by increased blood pressure and the new appearance of protein in the urine. There are, however, some non-specific symptoms such as severe headaches, abdominal or back pain, or visual symptoms. If a pregnant woman experiences these symptoms, they should consult their health care provider. In developing countries prenatal care is often not possible, and it is estimated that 50,000 women die of pre-eclampsia each year in these countries.

What Do I Do If I Am Diagnosed?

Physicians closely monitor pre-eclamptic women but if the disease worsens, doctors usually deliver the baby early. When left untreated, pre-eclampsia can lead to seizures or liver, kidney, or bleeding problems in the mother and/or distress or delayed growth of the fetus. Successful management requires meticulous prenatal care, carefully watching for further development of pre-eclampsia and delivering babies before the problem becomes life-threatening. The latter usually successfully avoids maternal death but may force an early delivery of the baby resulting in 10 percent of all premature births. Pre-eclampsia remains the leading cause of admission to intensive care units for pregnant women worldwide. Despite a dramatic increase in knowledge about pre-eclampsia in the last 20 years, attempts at prevention have been minimally successful.

Can I Do Anything To Prevent Getting It?

Obesity appears to be the leading cause of pre-eclampsia. The members of PAG are closely examining this relationship to better understand it. There’s also a strong tie between pre-eclampsia and cardiovascular disease later in life. Women who suffered from pre-eclampsia have twice the risk of heart attacks and stroke as women who did not have preeclampsia. Some women with certain variations of pre-eclampsia have a greater risk of heart disease than smokers! It is believed that the same maternal factors that lead to heart disease also lead to pre-eclampsia.

Understanding the disease further is the major goal of the Pregnancy Adaptation Group (PAG) at Magee-Womens Research Institute in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The group, founded by internationally renowned pre-eclampsia researcher James M. Roberts, MD, focuses on the cellular and molecular mechanisms of the disease as well as behavioral, epidemiological, and clinical components leading to the disorder.

As always, please consult your health care provider about your pregnancy.–James M. Roberts, M.D., is professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Epidemiology, and in the Clinical and Translational Research Institute at the University of Pittsburgh and a senior investigator at Magee-Womens Research Institute. Until July 2007 he held the positions of vice chair for research in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology & Reproductive Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh, the Elsie Hilliard Hillman Chair of Women’s and Infants’ Health Research, vice president for research at Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC and founding director of Magee-Womens Research Institute.