Eclampsia, Preeclampsia, and HELLP syndrome are hypertensive pregnancy complications. Collectively, they occur in 5-8% of pregnancies. They are potentially lifethreatening to both the mother to be and her unborn child. They most commonly occur in the third trimester and resolve within 48 hours of delivery, but can occur earlier or take longer to peak and resolve, even up to six weeks post partum.
Eclampsia is a dangerous pregnancy complication involving seizures in the mother to be. It has been identified as far back as ancient Greece, mentioned in 3000 year old writings.
In the last century or so, our understanding of the human body has grown in leaps and bounds. Doctors discovered that before seizures began (pre-eclampsia), a number of symptoms would appear. A new diagnosis was born. Preeclampsia is characterized by high blood pressure, defined as two or more readings of either >140 systolic OR >90 diastolic taken at least 6 hours apart, AND protein in the urine measuring 300+mg in a 24 hour sample. Prenatal visits usually include a blood pressure check and a urine sample to screen for these symptoms.
There are other symptoms that often go along with PE, but not everyone gets them. Thus, they aren't part of the diagnostic criteria. They are still important warning signs to know, look for, and seek help for. These other symptoms include excessive swelling, rapid weight gain, nausea or vomiting, abdominal and/or shoulder pain, lower back pain, headache, changes in vision, hyperreflexia, racing pulse, shortness of breath, and anxiety.
Preeclampsia has also been called Pregnancy Induced Hypertension and Toxemia, but these terms are not usually used today. Some doctors will still diagnose Pregnancy Induced Hypertension if blood pressure rises without protein in the urine.
HELLP stands for Hemolysis (breakdown of red blood cells), Elevated Liver enzymes, and Low Platelets. HELLP syndrome is very dangerous, attacking the liver and causing swelling of the brain. HELLP syndrome can develop before symptoms of PE appear. It is crucial that women with symptoms of PE or HELLP be evaluated quickly.
At this time, the only cure for PE is delivery of the baby. In mild cases, the pregnancy can be managed to buy time, but in severe cases immediate delivery may be necessary. PE and related conditions are the number one known cause of prematurity. They can also affect the baby by causing growth restriction and even death.
PE can be slow progressing or can develop rapidly. It is crucial that any new symptom be reported to your doctor or healthcare provider.