How to navigate a preeclampsia diagnosis - Ruth Health

How to navigate a preeclampsia diagnosis

Fast facts:

  • Preeclampsia is a pregnancy complication characterized by high blood pressure.
  • It typically develops around the 20th week of pregnancy.
  • Most individuals with preeclampsia have a successful delivery, but early diagnosis and treatment is important.
  • More severe cases of preeclampsia may require early delivery.
  • If you have an increased risk for developing preeclampsia, prioritizing your health and taking low-dose aspirin during pregnancy can help prevent the condition.

Preeclampsia is a pregnancy complication characterized by high blood pressure and high levels of protein in your urine. It typically develops around the 20th week of pregnancy.

While most individuals with preeclampsia have a successful delivery, early diagnosis and treatment is critical to both your and your baby’s health..

Here’s what to know about the condition, including how to prevent preeclampsia and how to navigate a preeclampsia diagnosis.

What is preeclampsia?

High blood pressure is the defining characteristic of preeclampsia. Protein in the urine and retention of water are other common early signs.

Many people with the condition do not experience symptoms, but when symptoms appear, they often include the following:

  • Headaches
  • Vision issues, including blurry vision, seeing dark spots, or sensitivity to light
  • Abdominal pain in the right side
  • Swelling in your hands and face
  • Shortness of breath

There is a spectrum of severity of preeclampsia cases. More severe symptoms include:

  • Extremely high blood pressure (160/110 mmHg or above)
  • Impaired kidney or liver function
  • Fluid in lungs
  • Low levels of blood platelets
  • Decreased production of urine

If untreated, preeclampsia can potentially lead to the following complications:

  • Slow fetal growth, since preeclampsia can affect the amount of blood, oxygen, and other nutrients delivered to the placenta
  • Placental abruption, a condition in which the placenta separates from the uterus, potentially depriving a baby of oxygen
  • HELLP syndrome, a rare and serious form of preeclampsia that affects the blood and liver

In more severe cases of preeclampsia, early delivery is required to protect the health of both the birthing person and baby.

One of the most important things you can do to successfully manage preeclampsia, or any other pregnancy complication, is to attend all of your prenatal appointments and share all of your pregnancy symptoms with your provider.

What causes preeclampsia?

Like many maternal health issues, preeclampsia is severely under-researched.

As a result, its exact causes have not been fully identified, but it likely originates from a problem with how blood circulates within the placenta.

This issue then leads to irregular blood pressure regulation in a pregnant person.

It isn’t entirely clear why some birthing people develop preeclampsia and not others, but these health factors may increase your risk:

  • A history of high blood pressure, kidney disease, diabetes, or autoimmune conditions
  • A family history of preeclampsia
  • Carrying multiples
  • Obesity

Research studies have found that you are less likely to have preeclampsia in subsequent pregnancies if you do not have it during your first.

Conversely, if you had preeclampsia during your first pregnancy, you are more likely to have it again — a risk that increases with each subsequent pregnancy.

Since stress affects blood pressure, there is a common misconception that stress is a factor in the development of preeclampsia. However, it is not a direct cause.

(While effectively managing stress is important during pregnancy, remember that some amount of stress is inevitable in life at any time.)

What is the process for receiving a preeclampsia diagnosis?

If you experience any symptoms of preeclampsia, consult your doctor for an evaluation. Be prepared to share when your symptoms started. 

Make sure your doctor also has all the information about your previous pregnancy, if relevant, including any complications you experienced.

Preeclampsia is typically diagnosed if you have high blood pressure after the 20th week of pregnancy and at least one of these defining symptoms:

  • Protein in the urine or other indications of impaired kidney function
  • Elevated liver enzymes, which indicate impaired liver function
  • Low levels of blood platelets
  • Fluid in the lungs
  • Headaches that aren’t resolved after taking medication
  • Vision issues

Blood pressure is measured in two numbers. The first number is a measure of systolic blood pressure, which is your blood pressure when your heart contracts. The second is diastolic blood pressure, which is your blood pressure when your heart is relaxed.

While numerous factors can impact a person’s blood pressure, and “normal” varies significantly by individual, the threshold for high blood pressure during pregnancy is typically considered 140/90 mm Hg.

What should I ask after a preeclampsia diagnosis?

Receiving a preeclampsia diagnosis may feel overwhelming. Ask your provider as many questions as you need to.

Use the following as a starting point:

  • How frequently should I monitor my blood pressure at home? What is considered high?
  • What emergency signs should I watch for?
  • What factors determine when it’s time to deliver my baby?
  • What are the risks and benefits of delivering early or later?
  • What care is required after an early delivery?
  • How can my partner or support person help me after a diagnosis?

How is preeclampsia treated?

All cases of preeclampsia require close monitoring until delivery. For more moderate cases, treatment typically consists of daily blood pressure monitoring at home as well as frequent doctor’s appointments to monitor blood pressure, changes in symptoms, and your baby’s growth.

Severe cases require hospitalization for closer monitoring of blood pressure and potential pregnancy complications.

Your doctor may also prescribe one or more medications including: 

  • Blood pressure-lowering medications
  • Anticonvulsant medications to prevent seizures
  • Corticosteroids to support the development of your baby’s lungs

Healthcare providers frequently recommend preterm delivery. In mild to moderate cases of preeclampsia, preterm delivery is typically planned for after 37 weeks.

In severe cases, a provider may recommend delivery before 37 weeks, depending on your symptoms and your baby’s health. If your preeclampsia affects the placenta, a c section may be necessary

What happens after delivery?

Preeclampsia typically goes away on its own within days or weeks of childbirth. Some people experience high blood pressure for several weeks. This is treatable with medication.

Continue to see your doctor for treatment and always follow their recommendations.

Those who had preeclampsia during pregnancy have an increased risk for high blood pressure and heart health issues later in life. However, these health issues aren’t inevitable. Your provider can guide you in managing your risk.

How can I prevent preeclampsia?

Not all cases of preeclampsia are preventable, but if you have an increased risk, there are steps you can take to manage it.

Prioritize your health as much as possible before and during pregnancy, working with your provider to manage any health conditions. Eat nutrient-rich foods, stay physically active, and get enough rest.

Research has found that taking low-dose aspirin during pregnancy can lower your chance of developing preeclampsia.

If you have one or more risk factors, your provider may recommend taking an 81-milligram tablet of aspirin every day, typically beginning after the 12th week of pregnancy.

Always consult a trusted health professional before taking any new medications, vitamins, or supplements.

We’re here to support your birthing journey

At Ruth Health, we understand that nobody knows what you need better than you. We provide expert, evidence-based maternal advice so that you can make the best decisions for yourself.

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