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What is Eclampsia?

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Updated April 11, 2014

Question: What is Eclampsia?
Answer:

Eclampsia is a serious condition most commonly defined as seizures or coma in a patient with other indications of pregnancy-induced hypertension. Eclampsia was once thought to be the endpoint of progressively worsening preeclampsia, but this is no longer the case. Instead, it is now recognized that some patients can develop eclampsia – or “eclamptic symptoms” – directly, without first developing any symptoms other than high blood pressure.

Despite this change in how eclampsia is viewed, it is still common to speak of the condition in terms of preeclampsia, which is why the official definition still talks about seizures or coma “in the setting of preeclampsia.” This somewhat outdated phrase really refers to a variety of symptoms –- along with the characteristic seizures –- that may include:

  • Protein in the urine
  • Elevated blood pressure (>140 mmHg systolic or >90 mmHg diastolic)
  • Abdominal pain
  • Decreased urine output
  • Signs of “fetal distress,” i.e. indications that the baby is having problems
  • Low blood platelet count
These additional symptoms are the background on which a diagnosis of eclampsia is made, but they are not required for diagnosis. In the presence of high blood pressure, seizures or coma are the defining symptom of eclampsia, and the only symptom required for diagnosis. Any pregnant woman with high blood pressure who has a seizure that can’t be attributed to some other cause can be diagnosed with eclampsia.

How Common is Eclampsia and When Does it Occur?

Though eclampsia is a very serious condition that can endanger the life of both mother and baby, it is relatively rare in the Western world. Data on how many women suffer from eclampsia suggest that the problem affects about 5 women in every 10,000 who give birth, or about one half of one tenth of one percent of all pregnant women.

About a fifth of all cases occur between 20 and 31 weeks of pregnancy; about a third occur at term during labor or 48 hours prior. Eclampsia is extremely rare before the 20th week of pregnancy, and the cases that do arise during this time are typically a sign of some other underlying disorder, such as a molar pregnancy or metabolic problem.

Eclampsia is more common in young (teenage) women and those older than age 35. Regardless of age, eclampsia is more common in women who have never before given birth. Data indicates that while minority groups seem to be at increased risk, this is most likely an effect of socio-economic factors, such as access to health care, rather than a true biological effect.

Learn More About Eclampsia

Sources:

  1. Geographic variation in the incidence of hypertension in pregnancy. World Health Organization International Collaborative Study of Hypertensive Disorders of Pregnancy. American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology 1988; 158:80.
  2. Sibai, BM. Diagnosis, prevention, and management of eclampsia. Obstetrics and Gynecology 2005; 105:402.
  3. Sibai, BM, McCubbin, JH, Anderson, GD, et al. Eclampsia. I. Observations from 67 recent cases. Obstetrics and Gynecology 1981; 58:609.
  4. Working group report on high blood pressure in pregnancy. National Institutes of Health, Washington, DC 2000.

  1. About.com
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  3. High Blood Pressure
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  5. Eclampsia
  6. Eclampsia Definition and Typical Symptoms

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