The known and unknown of preeclampsia in pregnant women

It’s a common complication of pregnancy, and yet there’s little known about the cause or a possible cure.

Preeclampsia is a condition that can develop in pregnant women usually brought on by high blood pressure and protein in the urine. It occurs in about one out of 20 pregnancies, and is frequently seen in pregnant women who deliver at the Mary Telfair Women’s Hospital, says Marybeth Milton, BSN, RN, CLC, lactation nurseThe Telfair BirthPlace. 

Marybeth Milton, The Telfair BirthPlace nurse
Marybeth Milton, BSN, RN, CLC, lactation nurse at The Telfair BirthPlace

“Preeclampsia, if unattended, can lead to eclampsia, which can cause seizures,” Milton says. “It also can lead to HELLP Syndrome, which makes pregnant women very sick and affects their clotting factors and their liver enzymes.”

Preeclampsia usually occurs late in pregnancy, normally after 20 weeks. It can happen to any expecting mother, even if there’s no history of high blood pressure; however, it is most often seen in first-time pregnancies, Milton says. Pregnant teens and women over 40 also may be at higher risk of developing the complication.


The cause of preeclampsia is unknown. Many believe the placenta plays a role because once it is delivered, mom tends to get better, Milton says. Underlying causes that may contribute to the condition are obesity, diabetes and chronic high blood pressure, Milton adds.

Signs and Symptoms

There are known symptoms of preeclampsia. However, they may not always be easily detected without the help of a doctor. Symptoms of preeclampsia include:

  • High blood pressure
  • High amounts of protein in the urine
  • Swelling, particularly in the face and hands
  • Abdominal pain
  • Seeing spots in your vision

“The most important thing a pregnant woman can do is have regularly scheduled visits with her physician so they can pick up subtle changes,” Milton says.


There is no cure for preeclampsia. Treatments vary based on the severity of the condition and the stage of pregnancy. Some physicians may put expecting mothers on bed rest but recent studies have found that doesn’t help (or hurt) the situation, Milton says. Pregnant women admitted to the hospital with preeclampsia will be administered magnesium sulfate through an IV. This helps relax the muscles so seizures (eclampsia) are less likely to occur.

The only way to stop preeclampsia is through delivery, Milton says. Doctors will make that decision based on the stage of pregnancy. Early deliveries due to preeclampsia are rare at The Telfair BirthPlace, Milton adds.

While most expecting moms are free of preeclampsia following delivery, there are times when the condition carries over into the fourth trimester (the four to six week period following birth), Milton says. These patients will be readmitted to the hospital and placed on magnesium sulfate while their blood pressure and other symptoms will be monitored.


Because the exact cause of preeclampsia is uncertain, it’s difficult to prevent. However, during every pregnancy, expecting moms should eat a healthy diet, drink lots of fluids and exercise within their doctor’s recommendations.

“While you may not avoid it, this will certainly help you be in a better state if you do get preeclampsia,” says Milton.

For more information about the Telfair BirthPlace, visit our website.

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