Symptoms, Causes and Treatment of Eclampsia

Very uncomfortable pregnant woman in third trimester

For most pregnant women, "What is eclampsia?" is an important question.

What Is Eclampsia?

Eclampsia is a life-threatening complication associated with pregnancy or delivery; this condition occurs in 1 in every 2,000-3,000 pregnancies. During eclampsia, the woman develops seizures but does not have a pre-existing brain condition that is associated with seizures. Coma can also be a complication of eclampsia.

Typically, the woman who develops eclampsia has been previously diagnosed with preeclampsia; preeclampsia consists of high blood pressure, rapid weight gain, and protein in the urine and can occur in up to 10 percent of first pregnancies.


In women who go on to develop eclampsia, the preeclampsia symptoms have become more severe. Other symptoms that can be associated with this life-threatening condition include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Headaches
  • Muscle Pain
  • Seizures

If the condition progresses untreated, more severe complications can occur such as:

  • Liver failure
  • Inability of the blood to clot
  • Pulmonary or lung edema
  • Coma

The fetus is also affected by eclampsia. High blood pressure associated with preeclampsia may cause intrauterine growth to slow down because of issues with the blood flow to the placenta; the placenta itself may detach from the wall of the uterus, which could lead to fetal death.


The actual cause of eclampsia is not fully understood, but researchers think that diet, genetic factors, changes in blood vessels, and placenta or nervous system problems may play a role.

Who Is at Risk?

Certain factors indicate which women are at higher risk for developing eclampsia:

  • Being African American
  • First pregnancy
  • Being over age 35
  • History of high blood pressure before pregnancy
  • History of kidney disease
  • History of diabetes
  • Multiple gestation pregnancy
  • Teenage pregnancy

Although eclampsia is more common during a first pregnancy, if you develop the condition once, you are at higher risk of developing preeclampsia or eclampsia during a different pregnancy. Women who have first degree relatives who have had the condition are also at higher risk of developing eclampsia because of the suspected genetic component. For health care professionals, the question "What Is Eclampsia?" has some complex answers.


If your obstetrician suspects that you have developed preeclampsia or eclampsia, she will work quickly to obtain a diagnosis. The doctor will perform a physician exam, check your blood pressure, and run a series of blood tests that check your kidney function, the ability of your blood to clot, and liver function. Urine tests to measure the presence of protein in the urine may also be performed.


You will have to be regularly monitored if you have preeclampsia with lab work and blood pressure checks. If the condition progresses to eclampsia, the definitive treatment is delivery of the baby. Your condition would need to be stabilized before the delivery of your baby can occur; in many instances, delivery will have to be induced or a Cesarean section will be performed.

To prepare you for delivery, the doctor will treat you to prevent additional seizures; while magnesium sulfate is the most common medication, other treatments like barbiturates or diazepam may also be used. Your doctor may continue the magnesium sulfate for up to 48 hours after your delivery because seizures can occur for a few days after birth in women with eclampsia. Magnesium can be given in either the intensive care unit or in the maternity ward.

During this time, the doctor may also treat any high blood pressure that is present. Common medications that can be used in pregnant women include hydrazaline or labetalol.

After your condition is stabilized, the obstetrician can attempt to induce labor; if you are earlier than 34 weeks of gestation, induction may not be successful. Medications such as oxytocin are used to help move labor along. If it appears that the baby has been compromised by the seizures or high blood pressure, the doctor may progress to an immediate cesarean delivery.


In the United States, women rarely die from eclampsia. There is no way to determine if a woman who developed eclampsia in one pregnancy will develop the condition again during a later pregnancy. Close monitoring during any other pregnancies is the appropriate management.

Eclampsia is a serious condition; however, most of the people involved - the women and babies - have a good outcome. But all pregnant women should understand "What is eclampsia?" and be aware of the symptoms.

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