Pregnancy increases your pressure in a whole bunch of ways. For all of you ladies who have ever waddled through your home cities on hot days, you know that the pressure in your feet, your legs, your fingers, and your hands is way more than just some mild swelling. It can get so bad that some women can’t wear their shoes, their rings, and even their watches; it’s no joke. And don’t even get us started on the bladder situation. It’s hard to go anywhere without knowing where the nearest bathroom is. But the pressure that we are going to address in the next few paragraphs is that of your blood pressure and a condition unique to pregnancy called pre-eclampsia. For those of you who either didn’t have this problem, didn’t know anyone who suffered from this condition, or have never been pregnant, you might be thinking PRE what? Your eyes are glazing over, and you are considering closing your computer. Stop! Pre-eclampsia is a very serious condition, and although we don’t expect to make you into board-certified OB/GYNs in the next several minutes, you should know what it is, what symptoms to look for, and when you need to shake a leg to the labor floor.
Pre-eclampsia is unique to pregnant women and newly post-partum women. It is a disorder that occurs in the last half of pregnancy and is characterized by new onset high blood pressure (a.k.a. hypertension) and protein in your urine (a.k.a. proteinuria). While it may be the first time you are looking at this word, it is actually not so uncommon. About 5% of pregnancies are affected by pre-eclampsia. Women who are having their first baby, are older, have a personal history or a family history of pre-eclampsia, have pre-existing medical problems (kidney disease, diabetes, obesity, a history of elevated blood pressure), or who have multiples are more likely to get pre-eclampsia. Why it happens is a bit unclear. While we know it involves both maternal, fetal, and placental factors, which ones, how much, and when they develop are still unclear. We do know that placental development early in pregnancy is probably a big contributing factor. The diagnosis is usually made in one of two ways—either you get picked up “coincidentally” when your doctor checks your blood pressure at a routine visit OR when you call with the scary symptoms.
The symptoms are pretty specific and usually cause your doctor, midwife, and/or nurse to quickly check your blood pressure and then check you into the hospital. Blood pressures are usually somewhere between the 140/90 to 160/110 mm Hg range—and trust us, this is not a place that you want to score high. The higher the blood pressure, the more severe the situation. (Same goes for the amount of protein in the urine; more is not better here!) To make the pre-eclampsia cut, your top BP number must be greater than 140 and the bottom greater than 90. In terms of the protein situation, you must have equal or greater than 0.3 grams in a 24-hour collection. (Yup, get out your bucket, and start peeing. We want all the urine you make for one whole day!) Other common symptoms include headache, blurry vision, flashing lights, abdominal pain (specifically in the center or the right upper abdomen), nausea and vomiting, shortness of breath, chest pain, and change in mental status (a.k.a. fuzzy thinking). If we feel pretty sure that you are headed for the pre-eclampsia party (elevated blood pressure, protein, and/or symptoms), we are likely going to send you an invitation to the labor floor. Regrets are not accepted. Here, you will find your place card with your room number on it. You will probably be sitting here all night! We will send some bloodwork on you to see how serious the situation is.
Just like most things, there are degrees of pre-eclampsia (mild to severe). We use your blood pressure, your urine, your symptoms, and your blood work to help us decide where you fall. Those that land at the severe table will not be leaving this party anytime soon. They will also likely not be leaving the hospital pregnant. Severe pre-eclampsia is often an indication for delivery. When a baby is delivered (at how many months/weeks pregnant) and how a baby is delivered (vaginal delivery vs. C-Section) are dependent on the severity of pre-eclampsia and the status of both Mom and Baby. When the baby comes out, the blood pressure usually comes down (or pretty shortly thereafter). Therefore, the best treatment for pre-eclampsia is delivery. However, while we are getting that baby to make its big debut, we have to protect you from seizures (no longer pre-eclampsia but now eclampsia) and other really unpleasant things. That’s why we give IV Magnesium. While the magnesium in many ways can be a miracle worker, it can make you feel many things other than good. You will feel hot; you will itch. You will be out of it; you will feel loopy. You will feel like you are having an out-of-body experience. It is not fun, but it is necessary. In most cases, we will also give you medications to lower your blood pressure. It will be a full-court press to protect you from the bad stuff associated with pre-eclampsia.
Most cases of pre-eclampsia occur after 34 weeks of gestation (about 8.5 months); however, some cases develop earlier. However early or late it comes, to be pre-eclampsia, it cannot come before 20 weeks (5 months) of gestation. And staying on the subject of timing, when you have had it once, you are more likely to have it again (and possibly) earlier than you got it last time. Unfortunately, there is no way to prevent the big P from making a return performance. Although newer scientific evidence shows that we can reduce the chances somewhat by giving aspirin, the data are not definitive. The data are even looser when it comes to things like extra calcium, anti-oxidants, vitamins C and E, and fish oil. Some say it can reduce the chances of having a repeat pressure performance, while others say it will do no more than a placebo pill.
We make a big deal out of pre-eclampsia because it is the real deal in terms of poor pregnancy outcomes. In fact, worldwide, about 10–15% of all pregnancy-related deaths are from pre-eclampsia and its nasty side effects (kidney failure, brain bleeds, strokes, heart muscle damage, liver failure/rupture, fluid overload in the lungs, seizures, and placental abruption). And in OB we have two patients (Mother and Baby), and pre-eclampsia does not spare either. It could cause serious problems for your plus one as well (growth restriction, low fluid, preterm delivery, and death). Pre-eclampsia can cause a precarious situation and therefore deserves our prompt attention.
Whenever we hear the word pressure, our brains automatically go to that Billy Joel song “Pressure.” You can hear those lyrics and that piano chord almost immediately. And with the opening vocals, up goes your blood pressure. You start thinking about all you have to accomplish in one day. It seems impossible! And the words of another musical great, David Bowie, remind us that we are always “Under Pressure”: pushing down on you/pushing down on me. But while normally these tunes pull you up a hill as you jog or are entertaining you on a car drive, when you are pregnant and your pressure rises, you can’t simply hum away the symptoms. Pre-eclampsia is not a song that can be changed or skipped; it’s here to stay. So make sure to share your symptoms and your medical history with your OB. We can rework this play list to make it something we can all listen to!