Eclampsia Symptoms

Eclampsia is a dangerous and life-threatening complication of pregnancy that occurs when women are not adequately treated for the condition pre-eclampsia. Pre-eclampsia refers to the onset of high blood pressure and proteinuria that occurs around 20 weeks into a pregnancy. Eclampsia is essentially pre-eclampsia accompanied by a form of generalized seizure called tonic–clonic seizure.

In the UK, pre-eclampsia progresses to eclampsia in around one in 4,000 pregnancies. If eclampsia goes untreated, it is usually fatal to both the mother and the baby. If a mother develops pre-eclampsia, the only way to manage the condition is to deliver the baby. However, if the pre-eclampsia is diagnosed at a stage too early to deliver the baby, the mother and baby require careful monitoring while the baby develops and matures to a stage where delivery is safe.

Pre-eclampsia can develop in the absence of any symptoms. It is therefore essential to monitor the maternal blood pressure as a routine part of prenatal care. The blood pressure is considered abnormal if two readings of 140/90 mmHg or higher are obtained when the mother is tested at least four hours apart.

Some of the symptoms of pre-eclampsia include:

  • Excess protein in the urine, referred to as proteinuria
  • Visual disturbances such as blurred vision, loss of vision or sensitivity to light
  • Severe headache
  • Abdominal pain, usually in the upper right portion of the abdomen
  • Decreased urine output
  • Impaired liver function
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Decreased blood platelet number (thrombocytopenia)
  • Nausea, vomiting
  • Sudden weight gain and accumulation of fluid (edema), especially in the hands and face

Risk factors for pre-eclampsia

The factors listed below are associated with an increased risk of developing pre-eclampsia:

  • First pregnancy
  • Age older than 40 years
  • Pre-eclampsia in a previous pregnancy
  • Underlying vascular disorders such as diabetes, high blood pressure and kidney disease
  • Twin or multiple pregnancy
  • A family history of pre-eclampsia

If the signs of pre-eclampsia are ignored, a mother is at risk of going on to develop eclampsia. Eclampsia is diagnosed based on the development of tonic-clonic seizures or coma in a pregnant woman who has no pre-existing brain disorders. If this condition develops, delivery of the baby will be arranged regardless of how developed the pregnancy is.

A convulsion is usually preceded by a loss of vision, headaches, nausea and vomiting. The seizures generally last for less than a minute, during which jerky, repetitive movements of the arms, neck, jaw and legs are seen. Although women generally recover fully from a fit, there is a small risk that permanent brain damage or disability will occur if a fit is severe. Occasionally, the mother does not experience any convulsions but instead falls straight into a coma. On awakening from the coma, some women experience a temporary loss of vision.

Around one in fifty women who develop eclampsia die from the condition and around 1 in 14 babies die during a convulsion, due to suffocation.

Further Reading

Last Updated: Aug 23, 2018

Sally Robertson

Written by

Sally Robertson

Sally graduated from Greenwich University with a first-class honours degree in Biomedical Science. After five years working in the scientific publishing sector, Sally developed an interest in medical journalism and copywriting and went on to pursue this on a freelance basis. In her spare time Sally enjoys cross-country biking and walking, tennis and crosswords.

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