How Dangerous Is Eclampsia During Pregnancy?

Doctor taking pregnant woman's blood pressure
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Question: How Dangerous is Eclampsia?


Eclampsia is a serious condition related to high blood pressure caused by pregnancy. It is also characterized by the presence of seizures. Unlike convulsions you may think of as occurring with certain disorders, these seizures are not related to the presence of a brain condition.

Eclampsia is extremely dangerous for both mother and baby, and is officially classified as a true obstetrical emergency.

This is because data has repeatedly shown that serious problems occur without immediate treatment. Encouragingly, this data has also shown that early and appropriate treatment dramatically reduces the risk of complications and greatly increases the probability that neither the mother nor the baby will experience negative long-term effects from the experience.

Maternal complications are, unfortunately, relatively common in cases of eclampsia, though the medical literature varies widely on exact numbers. Because all of the major review studies examining the complication risks in eclampsia have considered patients from around the world, the numbers may be artificially high with respect to those living in developed nations such as the United States, Canada, and the UK.

Overall, about 70% of women with true eclampsia will suffer some type of complication. These complications range from relatively minor to very dangerous and include:

  • Placental abruption
  • Kidney problems
  • Liver damage
  • Excessive bleeding
  • Swelling and congestion of the tissues around the lungs

The vast majority of complications like these are temporary, and will resolve following delivery of the baby and the return of blood pressure to normal. A small number of women experience some permanent decrease in kidney function, and a few may have elevated blood pressure that persists after delivery, requiring treatment.

Eclampsia, like other serious medical conditions, can cause death if not properly treated. While the risk of death from complications of eclampsia is relatively high in the developing world –- ranging from about 14 to 22% -- the risk is much lower in developed nations. Physicians in the United States and other developed countries are well-trained and experienced in managing this condition, which makes the chance of serious complication or death relatively small.

In contrast to the wide variety of possible complications for the mother, babies born to mothers with eclampsia seem to have a narrower range of potential problems. The most devastating complication of maternal eclampsia is fetal death, but numerous studies have shown that while babies born to eclamptic mothers do have a higher risk of death, this is most likely because they are at risk of being delivered prematurely. In other words, eclampsia does not seem to directly increase the baby’s risk of death, but rather increase the risk that the baby will be born pre-term. Regardless of the cause, babies born prematurely always have increased the risk for complications.

Eclamptic mothers who are treated and successfully give birth generally have a good long-term prognosis.

The most common long-term problems these women experience are high blood pressure that persists after delivery, and a risk of developing eclampsia or preeclampsia again in the future. With appropriate treatment, the risk of long-term complications is fairly low.

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