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Eclampsia

Definition

Eclampsia is seizures (convulsions) in a pregnant woman. These seizures are not related to an existing brain condition.

Causes

Doctors do not know exactly what causes eclampsia. Factors that may play a role include:

  • Blood vessel problems
  • Brain and nervous system (neurological) factors
  • Diet
  • Genes

Eclampsia follows a condition called preeclampsia. This is a serious complication of pregnancy in which a woman has high blood pressure and very rapid weight gain.

Most women with preeclampsia do not go on to have seizures. It is hard to predict which women will. Women at high risk of seizures have severe preeclampsia with findings such as:

  • Abnormal blood tests
  • Headaches
  • Very high blood pressure
  • Vision changes

Your chance of getting preeclampsia increases when:

  • You are 35 or older
  • You are African American
  • This is your first pregnancy
  • You have diabetes, high blood pressure, or kidney disease
  • You are having more than one baby (such as twins or triplets)
  • You are a teen

Symptoms

Symptoms of eclampsia include:

  • Muscle aches and pains
  • Seizures
  • Severe agitation
  • Unconsciousness

Symptoms of preeclampsia include:

  • Gaining more than 2 pounds a week
  • Headaches
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Stomach pain
  • Swelling of the hands and face
  • Vision problems

Exams and Tests

The health care provider will do a physical exam to look for causes of seizures. Blood pressure and breathing rate will be checked regularly.

Blood and urine tests may be done to check:

Treatment

The main treatment to prevent severe preeclampsia from progressing to eclampsia is giving birth to the baby. Letting the pregnancy go on can be dangerous for you and the baby.

You may be given medicine to prevent seizures. These medicines are called anticonvulsants.

Your doctor may prescribe medicine to lower high blood pressure. If your blood pressure stays high, delivery may be needed, even if it is before the baby is due.

Possible Complications

Women with eclampsia or preeclampsia have a higher risk of:

  • Separation of the placenta (placenta abruptio)
  • Premature delivery that leads to complications in the baby
  • Blood clotting problems

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your health care provider or go to the emergency room if you have any symptoms of eclampsia or preeclampsia. Emergency symptoms include seizures or decreased alertness.

Seek medical care right away if you have any of the following:

  • Bright red vaginal bleeding
  • Little or no movement in the baby
  • Severe headache
  • Severe pain in the upper right abdominal area
  • Vision loss
  • Nausea or vomiting

Prevention

Getting medical care all during pregnancy is important in preventing complications. This allows problems such as preeclampsia to be detected and treated early.

Getting treatment for preeclampsia may prevent eclampsia.

References

American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists Task Force on Hypertension in Pregnancy. Hypertension in Pregnancy. Practice Guideline WQ244. 2013.

Houry DE, Salhi BA. Acute complications of pregnancy. In Marx JA, Hockberger RS, Walls RM, et al, eds. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 8th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2013:chap 178.

Sibai BM. Hypertension. In: Gabbe SG, Niebyl JR, Simpson JL, et al., eds. Obstetrics: Normal and Problem Pregnancies. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Saunders; 2012:chap 35.

Stead LG. Seizures in pregnancy/eclampsia. Emerg Med Clin North Am. 2011;29:109-116.


Review Date: 2/24/2014
Reviewed By: Susan Storck, MD, FACOG, Chief, Eastside Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Group Health Cooperative of Puget Sound, Bellevue, Washington; Clinical Teaching Faculty, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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