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What Causes Eclampsia?


Updated December 10, 2007

Question: What Causes Eclampsia?

The exact causes of eclampsia are unknown. Because eclampsia and preeclampsia are closely related, it is likely that the two conditions are caused by similar underlying factors, but the data so far has not identified any factors common to all cases. Research has, however, identified several likely mechanisms that may contribute to developing eclampsia and preeclampsia. All of these mechanisms are complex and involve various interactions between the immune system, cardiovascular tissues and genetic factors. Some of the mechanisms being investigated currently include:

  • Problems with the cells that line the insides of certain blood vessels
  • Overproduction, underproduction, or malfunction of proteins needed to grow new blood vessels in the placenta
  • Abnormal development of capillaries and certain types of muscles within the placenta
  • Increased immune system sensitivity which causes the mother’s immune system to attack certain molecules that are needed to regulate blood flow into the placenta
  • Increased overall sensitivity to hormones that regulate blood pressure and blood flow in different parts of the body
Of special interest in cases of eclampsia are the conditions that lead to the seizures. Again, though much research has been done to investigate these conditions, no clear answers exist. One well-respected study used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to look at the brains of women suffering from eclampsia and found evidence suggesting that their increased blood pressure, along with other factors, had caused changes in blood flow to the brain. These changes caused some areas of the brain to receive too much blood, while other areas received too little. It was unclear, though, which of these – the excess or the deficit – was actually responsible for the seizures.

Later studies have replicated these findings, and have further shown that the brain changes seen in eclampsia seem to be progressive. That is, they develop over time, rather than suddenly, which provides some hope that future advances in medical technology may be able to watch for certain tell-tale signs that occur before symptoms develop, allowing more time for treatment and to avoid potential problems.

The most important message for patients concerned about eclampsia and preeclampsia is that these conditions cannot always be predicted. Because of this fact, the best way to protect yourself, and your baby, is simply to follow well known guidelines during your pregnancy. Protecting yourself means:

  • Seeking regular prenatal care
  • Avoiding risk factors like smoking, drug use, and alcohol during pregnancy
  • Reporting any unusual changes to your doctor as soon as possible
Though the details of eclampsia’s ultimate causes may be unclear, data has repeatedly shown that these simple steps greatly reduce your risk of developing the condition.

Learn More About Eclampsia


  1. López-Llera, M. Main clinical types and subtypes of eclampsia. Am J Obstet Gynecol 1992; 166:4.
  2. Dahmus, MA, Barton, JR, Sibai, BM. Cerebral imaging in eclampsia: Magnetic resonance imaging versus computed tomography. Am J Obstet Gynecol 1992; 167:935.
  3. Morriss, MC, Twickler, DM, Hatab, MR, et al. Cerebral blood flow and cranial magnetic resonance imaging in eclampsia and severe preeclampsia. Obstet Gynecol 1997; 89:561.

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  3. High Blood Pressure
  4. Information for Women
  5. Eclampsia
  6. Causes of Eclampsia in Pregnancy - What Causes Eclampsia?

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