Last year, I was one of the lucky 5-10% of Australian pregnant women diagnosed with pre-eclampsia.
Everything was going smoothly—just the usual aches and pains. Then at my standard 33-week appointment, my blood pressure reading hit 170/110 and I discovered I had pre-eclampsia.
“Hmmm… that blood pressure is reading very high. Lie down for me, please. I’ll have someone else check it.” The midwife frowned. At this stage, pre-eclampsia did not even enter my mind.
Another midwife came in. She took the reading, looked at me and said, “Sorry darling, this has become an emergency situation. I’m going to have to call a code.” She then pressed a big button on the wall above me.
An alarm rang out and the room filled with people, which I thought was totally bizarre because I felt fine. Doctors talked quickly over each other, midwives hovered to see what they could do. One of them shoved a cannula in my arm. Another stood beside me, and as they wheeled my bed onto a lift and upstairs to the maternal and fetal monitoring unit, she calmly said that I was being admitted and would probably have my baby today.
Long (loooong) story short: I *thankfully* did not have my baby that day.
They gave me steroid shots for my baby’s lungs and admitted me for the weekend. By the end of the two days they had managed to find the right dosage of blood pressure medication to keep me stabilised.
“You have pre-eclampsia.” A doctor explained to me before I was discharged, “I’ll be very surprised if you make it to 38 weeks.”
He prescribed a big ol’ bottle of little orange pills, visits to the pharmacy to have my blood pressure checked every second day, and twice-weekly appointments at the hospital for monitoring.
And with that, my pregnancy became a part-time job.
Not only was I going to the hospital for twice-weekly monitoring, but I also had to show up if the pharmacist’s blood pressure reading was high. On top of that, I had growth scans, extra blood tests, plus the standard pregnancy appointments.
By the time 38 weeks rolled around and I went in for my repeat C-section, I was so done with my (admittedly wonderful) hospital!
Fortunately, I beat the doctor’s odds and delivered my daughter when she was good and cooked, but many pre-eclampsia mums aren’t able to make it so far.
Pre-eclampsia in pregnancy
Pre-Eclampsia is the most common health issue in pregnancy, and it can get serious fast. If undiagnosed, it can lead to organ damage, organ failure, or eclampsia, which causes seizures. All of which is potentially deadly for mums and unborn babies.
Pre-eclampsia generally appears in the third trimester. However, it is possible for it to appear sooner than that. It is most commonly diagnosed when a pregnant woman begins experiencing unexplained high blood pressure. It can also increase protein levels in urine (hence the ongoing requests for you to wee in a cup at each appointment) and cause fluid retention (hence the regular weight checks).
There aren’t many outwardly noticeable symptoms of pre-eclampsia; most pregnant women with pre-eclampsia feel fine (other than the obvious aches and pains of carrying a mini human in their tum). Most symptoms that do appear are related to high blood pressure (hypertension), including:
- Dizziness and headaches
- Visual disturbances (blurriness or flashing lights)
- Irregular heartbeat and/or chest pains
- Difficulty breathing
Other pre-eclampsia symptoms may include:
- Epigastric pain or discomfort (felt below your ribs/around your upper abdomen)
- Nausea and vomiting
- Rapid weight gain (due to excess fluid)
- Over-active reflexes (eg when the doctor taps on your knee with a hammer)
- Swelling around the hands, feet, ankles, face or neck
If you observe any of these symptoms, don’t wait to mention it at your next appointment. See a doctor as soon as possible.
Pre-eclampsia treatment and management
Unfortunately, there’s only one way to cure pre-eclampsia: get the baby out. Until then, pre-eclampsia needs to be managed. Due to the life-threatening nature of the condition, if your doctor is unable to get it under control, the only safe option is to deliver your baby.
However, there are ways to manage it and reduce the risk of it becoming severe:
- Bed rest and avoidance of stress (check out our tips for maintaining emotional wellbeing during pregnancy)
- Blood pressure medication
- Anticonvulsant medication (if fits/seizures have been occurring)
- Magnesium sulphate injections (from what I’ve heard, these are hardcore but can be extremely necessary in some cases)
Pre-eclampsia treatment is a case-by-case kind of thing, so it’s essential to consult with a doctor who will find the right path for you.
Pre-eclampsia risk factors
There is no way to predict exactly who will be affected by pre-eclampsia. However, doctors have found that the chance of developing pre-eclampsia may be slightly elevated when the following risk factors are present:
- A history of pre-eclampsia in a previous pregnancy
- Obesity, or a history of obesity
- Carrying multiple babies (did you know that Beyonce had pre-eclampsia when she was pregnant with her twins?)
- Family history of pre-eclampsia (eg a mother or sister)
- Certain illnesses, such as lupus, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and kidney disease
- Mental illness, such as schizophrenia or bipolar
At the end of the day though, any pregnant woman is a candidate for pre-eclampsia, which is why ongoing prenatal care is absolutely essential.
Unfortunately, there is no known way to prevent pre-eclampsia in pregnancy.
Women with a history of pre-eclampsia are monitored a little more closely throughout their pregnancies. Low-dose aspirin and calcium supplements are often prescribed, as these have been known to reduce the risk of it re-occurring.
Many women who have experienced pre-eclampsia in a previous pregnancy don’t experience it again. But it is important to mention any history of the condition at the start of any subsequent pregnancies so your doctor is aware.
Pre-eclampsia in pregnancy is a risk and should be taken seriously.
However, with medical technology the way it is today, most cases of pre-eclampsia end up being just fine.