Causes and Symptoms of Eclampsia in Pregnancy

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Eclampsia is a serious condition of pregnancy that can be the endpoint of progressively worsening preeclampsia. However, some patients develop eclampsia without any prior symptoms other than high blood pressure.

If left untreated, eclampsia can be life-threatening for both the parent and baby. Learn to recognize the symptoms and causes of this condition.

Symptoms

Symptoms of preeclampsia often precede those of eclampsia and may include:

  • Protein in the urine
  • Elevated blood pressure (>140 mmHg systolic or >90 mmHg diastolic)
  • Abdominal pain
  • Decreased urine output
  • Signs of “fetal distress,” i.e. indications that the baby is having problems
  • Swelling of the hands, face, or entire body

These symptoms are the background on which a diagnosis of eclampsia is made, but they are not required for diagnosis. In the presence of high blood pressure, seizures or coma are the defining symptoms of eclampsia and the only ones necessary for a diagnosis of eclampsia. Anyone pregnant with high blood pressure who has a seizure that can’t be attributed to some other cause can be diagnosed with eclampsia.

How Common Is Eclampsia?

Though eclampsia is a very serious condition that can endanger the life of both the parent and baby, it is relatively rare in the Western world. Data on how many people suffer from eclampsia suggest that the problem affects about 0.08% of pregnancies in the United States.

According to experts, the majority of eclampsia cases occur very close to delivery—usually within 24 hours. About 50% of eclamptic seizures take place before patients reach the hospital, 30% happen during labor and delivery, and a small number occur after delivery.

Eclampsia is more common in people who are younger than 20 years or older than 35 years. Regardless of age, eclampsia is more common in people who have never before given birth.

Data indicates that while minority groups seem to be at increased risk, this is most likely an effect of socioeconomic factors, such as access to health care, rather than a true biological effect.

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  3. Hull AD, Moore TR. Hypertensive complications of pregnancy. In: Gleason CA, Devaskar SU. Avery’s Diseases of the Newborn. 9th ed. 2012:105-110. doi:10.1016/B978-1-4377-0134-0.10011-3

  4. Johnson JD, Louis JM. Does race or ethnicity play a role in the origin, pathophysiology, and outcomes of preeclampsia? An expert review of the literatureAmerican Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology. 2020. doi:10.1016/j.ajog.2020.07.038

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