Published: October 29, 2016

What Does Preeclampsia Mean?

Preeclampsia is a complication of pregnancy that causes a narrowing of blood vessels which supply blood to organs. This can result in life-threatening complications to both mother and fetus, as the uterus and placenta are among the organs whose blood supply can be impaired.

Preeclampsia affects about 5% of pregnancies, and may be more likely in pregnancies resulting from in vitro fertilization.

The first sign of preeclampsia is usually a rise in blood pressure, which may go undiagnosed. Most preeclampsia occurs late in pregnancy and does not interfere with a healthy delivery, but early-onset preeclampsia can cause serious pregnancy complications.

FertilitySmarts Explains Preeclampsia

The cause of preeclampsia is not known. It is more common in women who:

  • Are pregnant for the first time
  • Are very overweight
  • Have had preeclampsia with a previous pregnancy
  • Have a family history of preeclampsia
  • Are carrying multiple babies at once
  • Have a history of high blood pressure, diabetes, kidney disease, or organ transplant
  • Are under 18 or over 40 years old
  • Have polycystic ovarian syndrome
  • Have an autoimmune disorder
  • Have sickle cell disease
  • Got pregnant through in vitro fertilization

One study found that women who underwent in vitro fertilization were 40% more likely to experience preeclampsia. This means it occurred in 7% of pregnancies from in vitro fertilization instead of the 5% that is normal for the general population.

Some doctors have interpreted this to mean that subjecting embryos to laboratory conditions could make it harder for them to implant in the uterine wall, and increase their risk of placental development problems and other complications.

However, others point out that women who use in vitro fertilization frequently do so because they have another problem, such as advanced maternal age or an existing problem with the reproductive organs. These doctors question whether the findings were caused by IVF, or whether the IVF population was at higher risk for preeclampsia because of the same conditions that affected their fertility.

Symptoms of preeclampsia include:

  • A rise in blood pressure, which may be mild
  • Signs of kidney problems, such as decreased urine or protein in the urine
  • Swelling of hands and feet
  • Severe headaches
  • Vision changes, including blurred vision or unpleasant sensitivity to light
  • Upper abdominal pain, usually under the ribs on the right side
  • Nausea or vomiting after the first trimester
  • Decreased platelets in the blood
  • Liver problems
  • Shortness of breath

Once preeclampsia begins, it can escalate quickly to more serious conditions. In the most serious cases, organ damage, miscarriage, or maternal death may occur. Medical treatment can improve and manage symptoms, but the only complete cure is to end the pregnancy.

Most cases of preeclampsia occur late in pregnancy, at 37 weeks or later. With proper treatment, these can usually be resolved without serious problems because the baby can be safely delivered at that point.

Rarely however, preeclampsia can occur as early as the second trimester of pregnancy. These cases can be very challenging, because the baby may not be able to be delivered safely. This puts the baby and mother both at risk for serious organ damage as a result of preeclampsia. In severe cases, preeclampsia that begins early in pregnancy can result in pregnancy loss.

Pregnant women experiencing symptoms of preeclampsia should contact their healthcare providers immediately.

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