It Sometimes Starts With a Bad Headache

By Kristine Hartvigsen on May 4th, 2017

The fact that it may develop suddenly and quickly escalate to life-threatening levels is one reason preeclampsia is so feared. Because it is statistically uncommon (occurring in about 10% of pregnancies), many women don’t think it will happen to them. But you can be sure their OB/GYNs are monitoring for signs of preeclampsia during their prenatal visits.

Preeclampsia is a serious complication of pregnancy that is characterized by high blood pressure, proteinuria (excess protein in the urine), and edema (swelling of extremities). Unchecked, it could lead to liver or renal failure, future cardiovascular issues, stroke, and even death.

Preeclampsia most often occurs after the 20th week of pregnancy, and the only cure is delivery of the baby.

To monitor for signs of preeclampsia, OB/GYNs will check blood pressure and urine levels during every prenatal visit. They also may order blood tests to check for kidney or clotting functions.

In their article, “Management of Hypertensive Crisis for the Obstetrician/Gynecologist,” in the December 2016 issue of Critical Care Obstetrics for the Obstetrician and Gynecologist, Drs. Jamil ElFarra and James N. Martin Jr. write that a blood pressure at or greater than 160/110 mm Hg lasting longer than 15 minutes constitutes an emergency requiring swift attention and intervention.

Whenever possible, physicians want preeclamptic women to bring their pregnancies to term, but sometimes early delivery is indicated because of fetal distress. Preeclampsia can inhibit blood flow to the placenta and deprive the baby of oxygen and important nutrients.

Where the mother’s and baby’s condition allows it, prolonged bed rest until delivery may be ordered. Some women may be prescribed medication to control their blood pressure for the duration of their pregnancies.

In addition to elevated blood pressure, early symptoms of preeclampsia include severe headache, blurred vision, fatigue, rapid weight gain, swollen hands and feet, excess protein in urine or reduced urine output, shortness of breath, or nausea. Some women have no symptoms at all, so routine monitoring during prenatal visits is critical. Women should continue to be monitored for preeclampsia for 6 weeks postpartum because preeclampsia can emerge after childbirth. It’s called “late postpartum preeclampsia.”

Risk factors for preeclampsia include:

• first pregnancy
• history of gestational hypertension
• multiple-birth pregnancy
• preexisting hypertension or kidney disease
• obesity

Though there is no foolproof way to prevent preeclampsia, it is important that expectant women follow their doctor’s guidance about diet and exercise to keep risk as low as possible. Most OB/GYNs recommend that their patients reduce salt intake, drink plenty of water, avoid junk food, get adequate rest, do moderate exercise regularly, and reduce or avoid caffeine intake.

May is Preeclampsia Awareness Month. To help raise awareness and understanding, women across the country are bravely sharing their experiences with preeclampsia and related complications. Remember that most women can deliver a healthy baby if preeclampsia is detected early and treated with regular prenatal care. Vigilance is key.


This blog provides general information and discussion about healthcare-related subjects. The content and linked materials provided are not intended and should not be construed as medical advice. If the reader is an expectant mother with a medical concern, she should consult with an appropriately licensed physician or healthcare provider.

©2017. Ob Hospitalist Group, Inc. All rights reserved. View our linking and republishing policies.