For most women, being pregnant is a wonderful experience. Getting prenatal care, eating healthy and exercising regularly are all important to help maternal health and delivery of a healthy baby. While physicians are always checking to make sure that mother and baby are healthy, expectant mothers can help be on the lookout for signs that they may need medical attention.
High blood pressure disorders are among the most common medical disorders of pregnancy, occurring in 12 to 22 percent of pregnancies. Preeclampsia is a form of a high blood pressure disorder that typically manifests in the third trimester of pregnancy. It is one of the leading contributors to premature birth and maternal complications, and can cause serious short- and long-term problems for both mother and baby.
In cases of preeclampsia, the placenta attaches to the uterus in a way that decreases blood flow to both the placenta and the baby. This reduced blood flow can limit the developing baby’s supply of oxygen and nutrients, which can cause a number of problems.
A study published in December in JAMA Pediatrics found that children born to mothers who had preeclampsia during pregnancy were more then twice as likely to develop autism spectrum disorder as those whose mothers had normal blood pressure during pregnancy. Preeclampsia also increases a baby’s risk for low birth weight and premature birth, which have also been found to increase a child’s risk for autism. Very reduced placental blood flow to the baby was associated with a five-fold risk for developmental delay.
In the mother, preeclampsia can cause seizures, stroke or organ damage if left untreated. It is also one of the leading causes of maternal death. Long-term effects for mothers include an increased risk of cardiovascular disease later in life.
If you are pregnant, watch for the signs of high blood pressure and preeclampsia, which include:
- Sudden weight gain,
- Stomach pain,
- Lower-back pain,
- Nausea or vomiting,
- Headaches and
- Changes in vision.
Pregnant moms with vague symptoms such as a headache, abdominal pain, shortness of breath, generalized swelling or “I just don’t feel right” should contact their obstetrician or midwife.
The best way to manage preeclampsia is to catch it early. Typically, preeclampsia affects mothers as they get closer to delivering their baby and can be managed effectively. Early-onset preeclampsia, prior to 34 weeks of pregnancy, is often more severe. Postpartum preeclampsia can even first develop four to six weeks after giving birth.
Current recommendations call for close follow-up of women with elevated blood pressures or preeclampsia – even after delivery. Women who have experienced preeclampsia need to see their OB GYN within one week. Women should monitor their blood pressure at home and call their physician if their pressure reaches or exceeds 140/90.
New moms should not disregard symptoms, and family members are key partners in preventing maternal complications and deaths by intervening when their spouse or partner complains of shortness of breath, relentless headache and other concerning symptoms.
The Preeclampsia Foundation has additional patient education materials on its website. When detected promptly, preeclampsia is a manageable condition. The key is to be able to identify the signs early on.
Mark Zakowski, M.D., is a Chief of Obstetric Anesthesiology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and serves on the Board of Directors for the California Society of Anesthesiologists, the national Society of Obstetric Anesthesiology and Perinatology and the Task Force on Preeclampsia CMQCC, developing guidelines for preeclampsia recognition and management. Visit him online at www.DrMarkZakowski.com.