Preeclampsia: What is it and what causes it?

Posted by Isabelle Eskew on 4/30/24 3:05 PM

common-spirit_723a8ff8-17d5-42a2-a549-ea4d9c4c94c1_1578559084Preeclampsia is a complication of pregnancy and affects approximately 2-4% of pregnancies globally.

It can be concerning to hear you have developed preeclampsia, so we spoke with Phillip Kintner, MD, OB/GYN with Dignity Health Medical Group — Sierra Nevada, who shares insights on this condition. 

What is preeclampsia and what causes it?
Preeclampsia is persistent high blood pressure during pregnancy or postpartum. If you develop preeclampsia during pregnancy, it can be dangerous for both the mother and the baby. OB/GYNs closely monitor for signs of preeclampsia throughout pregnancy. 

“The exact cause of preeclampsia is unknown, but current thinking is that it may have something to do with abnormal placentation, which is where the placenta attaches in an abnormal location,” explains Dr. Kintner. “This can affect your arteries and your blood flow.” 

There are some things that can increase your risk, including:

  • Having certain medical conditions, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, or kidney disease
  • Having an autoimmune condition, such as lupus
  • Having a family history of preeclampsia, or preeclampsia in a previous pregnancy
  • Being pregnant with multiples (twins, triplets, etc.)
  • Having a BMI (body mass index) of 35 or more

What are the signs and symptoms of preeclampsia?
“Preeclampsia can be diagnosed after 20 weeks of pregnancy, but there are a variety of warning signs we are looking for during early pregnancy that could point to it,” says Dr. Kintner. “The earlier preeclampsia is diagnosed and monitored, the better the outlook for mother and baby.” 

Signs and symptoms include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Protein in the urine
  • Swelling in the hands, feet, and face
  • Headaches
  • Blurred vision
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Shortness of breath

How is preeclampsia treated?
“There is no real treatment for preeclampsia, but it can often be managed with medication and lifestyle changes,” says Dr. Kintner. “If you are at a high risk of developing preeclampsia, you may be advised by your OB/GYN to take a daily dose of aspirin from the 12th week of pregnancy until your baby is born.”

Treatment for preeclampsia may include:

  • Medications to lower blood pressure
  • Medications to prevent seizures
  • A healthy diet, including taking a daily prenatal vitamin
  • Regular exercise

How can I prevent preeclampsia?
“There are some causes that are unavoidable, like having a disease or condition that weakens your immune system, or having a family history of preeclampsia. While there is no sure way to prevent preeclampsia, there are some things you can do to reduce your risk,” explains Dr. Kintner. 

These include:

  • Getting regular prenatal care
  • Ensuring any chronic illness is stabilized and managed
  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Getting regular exercise
  • Managing your weight
  • Avoiding alcohol and tobacco smoke
  • Monitoring your blood pressure at home if you have any reason to suspect you may develop preeclampsia

If you are pregnant and have any concerns about preeclampsia, you can schedule an in-person or virtual appointment with your OB/GYN or primary care physician. Our “Find a Doctor” tool can help you find a Dignity Health Medical Group provider near you.

Meet Phillip Kintner, MD

Topics: OB/GYN, Women's Health, DHMG - Sierra Nevada

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