Posts Tagged ‘treatment for pre-eclampsia’

Preeclampsia: Research Roundup and Information for Professionals and Consumers

May 23rd, 2013 by avatar

by Caryn Rogers

May is National Preeclampsia Awareness Month and the Preeclampsia Foundation has been holding Promise Walks all around the country to raise awareness of this disease and generate funds for research.  Caryn Rogers, Senior Science Writer for the Preeclampsia Foundation has provided a research update and information about the etiology of the disease.  The Preeclampsia Foundation is rich in resources for birth professionals and women, including an active forum for mothers dealing with this complication of pregnancy (or postpartum). Lamaze International is a proud web content sponsor of the Promise Walk.- Sharon Muza, Science & Sensibility Community Manager

The Preeclampsia Foundation would like to thank Lamaze International and Science & Sensibility for this opportunity to present a research overview during National Preeclampsia Awareness MonthPreeclampsia, which means “before the lightning” in Greek, is a leading cause of maternal and neonatal mortality and morbidity worldwide. The syndrome probably got the name from its tendency to strike suddenly, out of nowhere. One in ten women develops gestational hypertension during her first pregnancy, while about one in twenty develops preeclampsia. The latter condition has historically been poorly understood, but new research has led to a deeper understanding of preeclampsia. Some of the new research has been supported with Preeclampsia Foundation Vision Grants over the last ten years.

What is Preeclampsia

Preeclampsia is a multifactorial, heterogeneous pregnancy syndrome diagnosed after the appearance of both hypertension and proteinuria (protein in the urine) any time after mid-pregnancy. Its cause is still unknown. Though called the “disease of theories,” research is closing in on triggers of the disorder, which will help to design specific treatments. Certain women have predisposing factors such as the presence of other diseases that make preeclampsia more likely. There may be specific genetic factors. While the disease’s primary symptoms are hypertension and proteinuria, many other organ systems may be involved, especially the liver, brain, and platelets. Symptom presentation is unpredictable, with some cases appearing to fulminate within hours and other cases remaining mild for weeks. Finally, some preeclamptics progress to a convulsive phase – the disease known as eclampsia.

How is Preeclampsia diagnosed

Two blood pressure readings, taken at least six hours apart, of 140/90 mm Hg or greater, and the excretion of 300 mg or more of proteinuria in a 24-hour urine sample are the primary diagnostic requirements. Currently, many clinics are measuring the ratio of protein to creatinine in a single urine sample, using a value that predicts the total will be 300 mg or more in a day. In some instances, the disease is diagnosed without proteinuria when preeclampsia-specific signs and symptoms of other organ system involvement occur.

Signs and Symptoms of Preeclampsia

No Symptoms
Edema (Swelling)
Sudden Weight Gain
Nausea or Vomiting
Abdominal (stomach area) and/or Shoulder Pain
Lower back pain
Changes in Vision

Racing pulse, mental confusion, heightened sense of anxiety, shortness of breath or chest pain, sense of impending doom

 adapted from Preeclampsia Foundation

What are the risk factors for Preeclampsia

Risk factors for preeclampsia include: first pregnancy, previous history of preeclampsia, multiple gestation, preexisting hypertension, diabetes, kidney disease, or organ transplant, obesity, age over 40 or under 18 years, maternal family history of preeclampsia.  Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS); Antiphospholipid Antibody Syndrome (APS), lupus or other autoimmune disorders; and use of any Assisted Reproductive Therapy (ART).

Much of what is included in standard prenatal care was developed primarily to detect preeclampsia. This is why blood pressure and urine protein are checked at every visit and why visits come more closely together as the end of pregnancy approaches. The careful attention of care providers to these potentially invisible symptoms, and their communication of worrisome signs and symptoms to patients, has saved countless lives. Women who have been educated to know the signs and symptoms are able to practice the Preeclampsia Foundation’s motto, “Know The Symptoms. Trust Yourself.” 75% of those who knew the risks were able to take life-saving action when symptoms developed, versus 6% of those who did not know the signs and symptoms.


Placentas from preeclamptic pregnancies are characteristically shallowly implanted. During differentiation, the blastocyst will divide into an internal set of cells (the embryoblast), and an outer layer that will become the placenta (the trophoblast). When the blastocyst embeds into the decidua, the trophoblast remodels the uterine spiral arteries that supply blood to the endometrium. This remodeling activity persists into the second trimester of pregnancy. In normal pregnancies, this remodeling produces arteries that deliver appropriate blood flow to the placenta; in preeclamptic pregnancies the remodeling process is flawed.

Trophoblastic cells enter the spiral arteries and induce apoptosis, which is the initiation of cell death in the endothelial cells lining the walls of the arteries. Once the cells have died, the trophoblastic cells convert into an endothelial form and adhere to the walls of the vessels. These cells ignore maternal signaling to contract the vessel, which is why, in a normal pregnancy, these arteries are relaxed at all times, bathing the placenta in oxygen and nutrients. In preeclamptic placentas, the remodeling does not extend as far as normal, impeding appropriate nutrition and oxygenation.

One theory is that shallowly implanted placentas may not be able to transfer the total of oxygen and nutrients the fetus requires to develop ideally. The flow of blood through the spiral arteries is affected by their smaller size. Several genetic mechanisms that can cause shallow implantation have been identified with more likely to be discovered as investigation into trophoblastic cells continues. (Colucci, 2011; van Dijk, 2010)

Once fetal growth accelerates in the later trimesters of pregnancy,  the fetal demand for more oxygen than the placenta is capable of ferrying eventually leads to placental hypoxia. Hypoxia triggers the placental release of a protein called soluble fms-like tyrosine kinase (sFlt-1.) SFlt-1 binds to vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) and a placentally derived factor that mimics it, placental growth factor (PlGF), rendering both unavailable to the receptors they usually target. SFlt-1 levels are measurably elevated in pregnant women who go on to develop preeclampsia. (Levine 2006; Maynard 2003)

In the vasculature, VEGF shepherds repair molecules along the walls of the blood vessels, plugging the holes that appear with normal wear and tear. When free VEGF is bound by sFlt-1, it cannot do this repair work.  Because the rate at which the repair slows depends on the amount of sFlt-1 that the placenta is producing and also on the amount of VEGF a woman’s body naturally produces, the symptoms that follow this damage vary widely. The effect of reduced levels of free VEGF and PlGF is that the vasculature is unable to achieve normal vasodilation and resists signals to contract or dilate appropriately.

Another circulating antiangiogenic factor is soluble endoglin, or sEng, which binds to and disrupts the normal functioning of TGF-beta, a protein that controls proliferation, cell differentiation and other functions in most cells.. Thus sEng, too, has also been identified as a culprit in preeclampsia. Although its mechanisms are not as clearly understood as those of sFlt-1, it’s been empirically confirmed that women who develop preeclampsia at term have increasing serum levels of sEng beginning as early as gestational week 25. There are also suggestions that women are more likely to develop the dangerous variant of preeclampsia known as HELLP syndrome (Hemolysis, Elevated Liver enzymes, Low Platelets) if their levels of sEng are highly elevated relative to their sFlt-1 levels, and that they are more likely to develop severe preeclampsia when sFlt-1 levels are high relative to sEng. (Baumwell, 2007)

Depending on individual underlying susceptibilities and the ratios of antiangiogenic factors, a pregnant woman can develop the following symptoms at any rate and in any order, combination, and degree of severity, starting after midgestation and continuing for up to six weeks postpartum: hypertension, proteinuria, sudden weight gain and swelling, nausea, vomiting, upper right quadrant abdominal pain, shoulder pain that feels like a pinched nerve along the bra strap (referred from the liver), lower back pain, headache, visual disturbances, hyperreflexia, racing pulse, mental confusion, heightened sense of anxiety, shortness of breath or chest pain, sense of impending doom, abruption, IUGR, fetal distress, thrombocytopenia, either very low or conversely a large increase in urine output, seizure, pulmonary edema, liver rupture, abruption, and death.

The multi-organ nature of the syndrome means that a woman can feel fine, have hypertension and proteinuria that becomes apparent after testing, and then be admitted to the hospital with failing kidneys, liver and other organs. Or she can have a headache and begin seizing with comparatively low blood pressure and only mild proteinuria. The various presentations of preeclampsia make it challenging to consistently diagnose and manage appropriately.

The blood pressure increase indicates vascular damage that compromises the mother’s health and damages the spiral arteries which connect the placenta to the woman’s body. Women with preeclampsia also have a dysregulated metabolic response to pregnancy. (von Versen-Hoeynck, 2007)  Gestational diabetes is a risk factor for preeclampsia, and women with PE are more likely to have elevated cholesterol readings and alterations in many serum biomarkers. Placental debris from an enhanced inflammatory immune response is thought to sweep into the maternal bloodstream and trigger these metabolic responses. (Redman, 2012) Researchers are newly aware of this signaling mechanism and further research is in progress.

Treatment and Prevention

As of May 2013, the only definitive treatment for preeclampsia is delivery of the placenta. These pregnancies, whether or not they are initially low-risk, are medically complicated and are generally managed by OB-GYNS, sometimes in consult with maternal-fetal medicine specialists. Timing of delivery is one of the only tools available to manage and balance the competing interests of worsening maternal disease, a failing placenta, and a potentially premature baby. Patients are managed with close monitoring, anti-hypertensives as necessary, and sometimes steroid shots to accelerate fetal lung maturation, depending on gestational age. In severe cases, this monitoring occurs while the woman is hospitalized in a tertiary care center. Magnesium sulfate may be given to reduce the risk of seizure. In severe disease, delivery sometimes must take place regardless of gestational age to best protect both lives (even a very preterm baby can be better out than in when the placenta is failing and the mother’s liver is threatened) and is seriously considered in cases of severe preeclampsia for any worsening of symptoms after 34 weeks.

The HYPITAT trial has led to a new ACOG recommendation, to be released later this year, that any gestational hypertension (readings above 140/90 mm Hg) be induced at 37 weeks gestation. (Koopmans, 2009) The data show equally good outcomes for the neonate in either arm of the trial, and substantially reduced maternal risk of severe hypertension. 

Calcium supplementation to prevent preeclampsia has been evaluated in large randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and found to have no benefit except perhaps in populations with very low dietary intake. Antioxidant supplementation – specifically vitamins C and E, also evaluated in large RCTs, has shown no benefit. Supplemental baby aspirin showed no benefit or harm in two large RCTs, but meta-analysis showed a potential benefit to an as-yet-unidentified high-risk population when begun in the first trimester. The older therapies of dietary salt restriction, diuretics, and bed rest have not been shown to have benefits and may cause harm so are not recommended.

Risk of Cardiovascular Disease

In addition to being at higher risk of preeclampsia in any subsequent pregnancies, women with a history of preeclampsia are at roughly double the risk of developing heart disease or stroke over the five to fifteen years following delivery. Many women develop chronic hypertension postpartum. There are risk factors common to both preeclampsia and heart disease, and there is also evidence that preeclampsia can cause damage to the heart. 

Lifestyle changes are known to lower risk of heart disease, so women with a history are recommended to stop smoking (or never start), eat a heart-healthy diet, get regular exercise, and maintain a normal BMI. Because preeclampsia unmasks a higher risk, proactively consulting her physician and preferentially a general internist or cardiologist to discuss heart health postpartum can also help to monitor for the chance that heart disease will develop.

Lowering the Risk

Although there are no known therapies at this point, there are ways to reduce the risk of preeclampsia to mother and baby. Pre-conception or inter-conception care is gaining increasing value as women can be assessed and counseled to begin a pregnancy in the best possible health. Regular prenatal care, with close monitoring of symptoms, will detect the onset of hypertension in many women. For those whose disease progresses rapidly between appointments, knowledge of the signs and symptoms of the condition is the best protection. To this end, the Preeclampsia Foundation provides evidence-based patient education materials to care providers and encourages women to contact their care providers to report any headache, nausea, elevation in hypertension, changes in swelling or urine output, visual disturbances (like sparkles and flashing lights,) and pain in the upper right of the abdomen or along the bra strap. Being informed and closely monitored saves lives.

References and Recommended Reading

Baumwell, S., & Karumanchi, S. A. (2007). Pre-eclampsia: clinical manifestations and molecular mechanismsNephron Clinical Practice106(2), c72-c81.

Colucci, F., Boulenouar, S., Kieckbusch, J., & Moffett, A. (2011). How does variability of immune system genes affect placentation?. Placenta32(8), 539-545.

Garovic, V. D., Bailey, K. R., Boerwinkle, E., Hunt, S. C., Weder, A. B., Curb, D., … & Turner, S. T. (2010). Hypertension in pregnancy as a risk factor for cardiovascular disease later in lifeJournal of hypertension28(4), 826.

Koopmans CM, Bijlenga D, Groen H, Vijgen SM, Aarnoudse JG, Bekedam DJ, van den Berg PP, de Boer K, Burggraaff JM, Bloemenkamp KW, Drogtrop AP, Franx A, de Groot CJ, Huisjes AJ, Kwee A, van Loon AJ, Lub A, Papatsonis DN, van der Post JA, Roumen FJ, Scheepers HC, Willekes C, Mol BW, van Pampus MG; HYPITAT study group. (2009) Induction of labour versus expectant monitoring for gestational hypertension or mild pre-eclampsia after 36 weeks’ gestation (HYPITAT): a multicentre, open-label randomised controlled trialLancet. 374(9694):979-88

Levine, R. J., Lam, C., Qian, C., Yu, K. F., Maynard, S. E., Sachs, B. P., … & Karumanchi, S. A. (2006). Soluble endoglin and other circulating antiangiogenic factors in preeclampsiaNew England Journal of Medicine355(10), 992-1005.

Maynard, S. E., Min, J. Y., Merchan, J., Lim, K. H., Li, J., Mondal, S., … & Karumanchi, S. A. (2003). Excess placental soluble fms-like tyrosine kinase 1 (sFlt1) may contribute to endothelial dysfunction, hypertension, and proteinuria in preeclampsiaJournal of Clinical Investigation111(5), 649-658.

Powers RW, Jeyabalan A, Clifton RG, Van Dorsten P, Hauth JC, et al. (2010) Soluble fms-Like Tyrosine Kinase 1 (sFlt1), Endoglin and Placental Growth Factor (PlGF) in Preeclampsia among High Risk Pregnancies. PLoS ONE 5(10): e13263. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0013263

Redman, C. W. G., Tannetta, D. S., Dragovic, R. A., Gardiner, C., Southcombe, J. H., Collett, G. P., & Sargent, I. L. (2012). Review: Does size matter? Placental debris and the pathophysiology of pre-eclampsiaPlacenta,33, S48-S54.

Turner, J. A. (2010). Diagnosis and management of pre-eclampsia: an update.International journal of women’s health2, 327.

van Dijk, M., & Oudejans, C. (2010). Stox1: key player in trophoblast dysfunction underlying early onset preeclampsia with growth retardation.Journal of pregnancy2011.

von Versen-Hoeynck, F. M., & Powers, R. W. (2007). Maternal-fetal metabolism in normal pregnancy and preeclampsiaFront Biosci12, 2457-2470. 

Warning, J. C., McCracken, S. A., & Morris, J. M. (2011). A balancing act: mechanisms by which the fetus avoids rejection by the maternal immune systemReproduction141(6), 715-724.

World Health Organization. (2011). WHO recommendations for prevention and treatment of pre-eclampsia and eclampsia. Geneve: WHO.

About Caryn Rogers

A native of Tempe, Arizona, Ms. Rogers is a graduate of Arizona State University. A freelance science writer and editor for medical nonprofits, she has been the senior science writer for the Preeclampsia Foundation since 2006. She lives with her family in Mt. Lebanon, PA, where she also plays the violin. Ms. Rogers can be contacted through the Preeclampsia Foundation or via email




Childbirth Education, Evidence Based Medicine, Maternity Care, New Research, News about Pregnancy, Pregnancy Complications, Research, Uncategorized , , , , , , , ,

Beyond Downton Abbey: The True Life Trauma of Pre-eclampsia, Eclampsia, and Its Psychological Aftermath—An Interview with Jennifer Carney of The Unexpected Project

February 5th, 2013 by avatar

By Walker Karraa

Regular contributor Walker Karraa interviews Jennifer Carney, a mother of two, who suffered from eclampsia at the beginning of her third trimester.  Jennifer shares her real life story, on the heels of a favorite character’s similar experience on the popular TV show “Downton Abbey.”  Today, we learn about Jennifer’s experience and on Thursday we learn more about resources and organizations working hard to make this potentially deadly disease less harmful to pregnant and postpartum women.  – Sharon Muza, Community Manager



The recent episode of “Downton Abbey” brought much needed attention to the maternal health issue of pre-eclampsia. Why is it we rely on fiction for permission to get real? Where is the line between evidence-based research and fictional representations of the lack of it? How do we encourage each other and the next generation of maternal health advocates to harness the undeniable power of media but not become part of a social construction of maternal mortality as not real? As a qualitative researcher, I believe that some of our best evidence stems from researching real experiences from real women. It is my pleasure to introduce a real woman who experienced the full range of eclampsia and its psychological aftermath: Jennifer Carney.

Note: Consultation with Science and Sensibility contributor, Christine Morton, PhD was conducted to insure accurate and current statistical data regarding pre-eclampsia and eclampsia. 

Walker: Jennifer, can you tell us your story?

JC: My second pregnancy was easier than my first. Up until it wasn’t. I conceived as soon as we started trying. We had no soft markers on the ultrasounds, no need for an amnio, and no borderline gestational diabetes. I was only 34 and with a successful full-term first pregnancy; I was considered “safe” from preeclampsia. The only risk factor I had was my weight, but even with that, statistically my risks were much lower than for a healthy first time mom. There was something about it that seemed too easy. I felt like the other shoe was going to drop – but I never imagined that it would fall with such force.

In my 32nd week, I began to feel ill – like I had the flu. I took a day off from work to rest and recover. I thought I was getting better, but that night I began feeling worse. I called in sick to work again – it was a Friday – and my husband and son went off to work and daycare. I was alone. I laid down and slept for about 4 hours. When I awoke, I felt much, much worse. The headache radiated out from behind my eyes. I was seeing spots. I was incapable of thinking clearly. The phone rang several times, but the receiver was not on the base. I couldn’t locate it before the answering machine picked up. By this point I was aware that something was very wrong, but I wasn’t able to do anything about it. I stayed on the couch, barely moving for as long as I could.

Signs and Symptoms of Pre-eclampsia

  •  High blood pressure. 140/90 or higher. A rise in the systolic (higher number) of 30 or more, or the diastolic (lower number) of 15 or more over your baseline might be cause for concern.
  • Protein in your urine. 300 milligrams in a 24 hour collection or 1+ on the dipstick.
  • Swelling in the hands, feet or face, especially around the eyes, if an indentation is left when applying thumb pressure, or if it has occurred rather suddenly.
  • Headaches that just won’t go away, even after taking medications for them.
  • Changes in vision, double vision, blurriness, flashing lights or auras.
  • Nausea late in pregnancy is not normal and could be cause for concern.
  • Upper abdominal pain (epigastric) or chest pain, some- times mistaken for indigestion, gall bladder pain or the flu.
  • Sudden weight gain of 2 pounds or more in one week.
  • Breathlessness. Breathing with difficulty, gasping or panting.

If you have one or more of these signs and symptoms, you should see your doctor or go to an emergency room immediately. 
Source: Preeclampsia Foundation

Sometime after 5:00, I realized that I was going to have to call someone else to pick up my son at daycare by the 6:00 closing time. I managed to get to my feet and stagger toward the kitchen. I reached out to steady myself on the counter and missed. I fell to my left, onto the hard tile floor in front of the stove. I knew this was bad, but all I could think was that I had to hold on and that someone would be coming. I told myself that I couldn’t let this happen. Shortly thereafter, I tried to scream and felt the beginning of what I later learned was a tonic-clonic or grand mal seizure.  

This was eclampsia – full blown seizures caused by extremely high blood pressure. Somehow, I held on. Somehow, I held on in this state for something like 3 full hours. I have no way of knowing how many seizures I had in that time. When my friend arrived after 8:00, she found me on the floor. I came to long enough to answer her question – “yes, I know where I am. I’m fine.” I tried to get up – and immediately started seizing again. She called 911 and within minutes the paramedics arrived. 

My son was born, not breathing, about an hour later. The doctors were able to revive him, thankfully. He went off to the NICU and I was sent to the ICU. Two days later, I regained consciousness. I was on a respirator and completely disoriented. I was later diagnosed with HELLP syndrome, eclampsia, pneumonia, acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), and sepsis – any of which can be fatal on their own. My son was moved to another hospital with a larger NICU, and I spent 8 days in the hospital where he was born. I saw him briefly before they transferred him – but was unable to hold him until after I was discharged – more than a week after he was born. For the next 20 days, I was only able to see him and hold him during daily visits to the NICU. It would be 4 full weeks from his birth before we could take him home to meet his 4 ½  year old brother for the first time. This was definitely not what we had envisioned.

This experience changed my entire perspective on life. It was the first significant health crisis that I had ever faced and it shook my sense of security and safety. It took a long time to recover physically from the trauma and emotionally I was just a wreck. I was aware that Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was a possibility, but I think the picture I had in my mind of what PTSD was turned out to be very different from the ways in which I experienced it. I had envisioned a quick, big breakdown – but the reality was much subtler. At first, I experienced an aversion to seeing pregnant women. I wanted to warn them, but I also could barely look at them. It manifested in other ways, too – dreams about seizures, muscle spasms, intrusive thoughts. But it felt manageable and the antidepressants helped control the runaway anxiety that had hampered my first postpartum experience 4 years earlier.

Photo: J. Carney 

The mental health issues were helped by the antidepressants, but I wish that I had tried therapy much sooner. It’s doing wonders for me now – but I waited over 6 years to try it. Today, my preemie is in kindergarten and doing well. Aside from my son, getting involved with the March of Dimes and Preeclampsia Foundation has been by far the best part of the whole experience. I wouldn’t change that part, at all.

Walker: How is mental health neglected in the overall understanding of the topic, treatment, and recovery?

JC: This is a huge problem. I got great care while I was in the hospital. I saw social workers, chaplains, and a wide variety of people who inquired after my pain levels and my coping skills. The problem with this is that I was on massive pain killers the whole time. Percocet and morphine can mask emotional pain as well as physical pain. I’m sure I came off as reasonably well adjusted to the whole experience, despite the mental confusion left over from the seizures and the serious health issues that remained. And I was relatively okay. Even during the month-long NICU stay, I was doing all right. I was sleeping well, eating, taking care of myself – but I was also still on Percocet. It smoothed over the rough edges.

It wasn’t until the help dried up, the prescriptions ran out, and the reality of being at home by alone with an infant to care for that the walls started to come down again. Here I was at the scene of the initial trauma, cooking at the same stove that I had seized in front of for hours, responsible for a premature infant who needed drugs to remind him to breathe. This is when I needed the help. This is when I needed information on PTSD and postpartum depression (PPD). This is when I needed support. And as I began the long process of understanding what had happened and why, I found I needed even more support to help me wrap my head around it all.

As I noted while talking about myths, there is a pervasive culture of blame in the overall birth discussion regarding preeclampsia. It can be hard to find information that doesn’t make you feel that you somehow brought this condition on yourself. I looked at the risk factors and the arguments about lifestyle, obesity, and diet – and found a lot of things that sounded like they made sense. But they only made sense if I internalized them and blamed myself for the shortcomings. Maybe it was my fault. This, as you can imagine, does not help the feelings of depression and trauma. It took a LONG time for me to come to the conclusion that there was no way for me to have known that this would happen or to have prevented it. Statistically speaking, I had a very low chance of developing eclampsia even with the risks factored in. Statistically speaking, my son and I should not have survived, either. But we did – and now I want to make sure that I use that in a meaningful way. 

Walker: Did your childbirth education prepare you for your experience?

JC: Heck no. I only took classes with my husband before our first child. We weren’t planning to take the classes again with the second, but since he was born at 7 months, we probably would have missed most of them even if we had planned to. I distinctly remember the childbirth educator talking about her own response to sleeplessness, which was a sort of slap happy, giddy reaction. She mentioned PPD, but not in any real way that conveyed the depths or potential seriousness of the condition. We also received almost no information on pregnancy complications. To me, preeclampsia meant high blood pressure – and I had never had problems with that before. It was totally off my radar. Plus, Preeclampsia very rarely happens in a second pregnancy if it didn’t happen in the first. So, no one prepared me for it. Not my doctor, not my classes, not my books.

Walker: What recommendations do you have for childbirth educators and doulas regarding this issue?

JC: Really, I think it comes down to trusting that the moms you are helping can handle the information that they NEED to know. I was alone. If I had known that these symptoms could mean eclampsia or preeclampsia, I might have been able to save myself from the seizures – which would have also likely saved me from the ARDS and pneumonia. My ICU stay might have not happened. My son was going to be born early – but if I had gone to my doctor or called an ambulance myself, it might not have been so close a call. It’s not my fault that I didn’t know – but it could have been tragic.  

Know the signs and symptoms. Know that a woman with severe PE might be having cognitive issues – confusion, and vision problems. Don’t ask her to drive. Don’t downplay distress. And take complaints of headaches, upper quadrant pain, nausea, diarrhea, shoulder pain, visual disturbances, and a general feeling that something is “off” seriously. And if you have a client or patient that experiences something like this, please follow up and ask about mental health issues. Be careful not to ask questions that can be answered with the words: “I’m fine”. Dig deeper.

Closing Thoughts

How might we increase our understanding of this issue through Jennifer’s story? Is it possible to begin a dialogue here–one in which we agree to change paradigms of learning and knowing women’s experiences beyond an episode of a fictional television show?  Jennifer presents an exemplar synthesis of the fullest range of insight possible when empirical and phenomenological considerations are employed.. Her lived experience combined with and through her knowledge of the evidence creates an exemplar of how knowing and knowledge cannot be divided if the pursuit of knowledge is truly desired.

In the next installment, scheduled for February 7th,  Jennifer reflects on common myths about PE, and her work with the Unexpected Project and the Preeclampsia Foundation.   

Birth Trauma, Childbirth Education, Depression, Guest Posts, Maternal Mental Health, NICU, Postpartum Depression, Pre-eclampsia, Pre-term Birth, Pregnancy Complications, PTSD , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Pregnancy and Childbirth Advice Books through the Lens of Preeclampsia

July 3rd, 2012 by avatar

Guest post by Science & Sensibility contributer Christine H. Morton, PhD

(Full disclosure:  the organization I work for, CMQCC, has been working with representatives from the Preeclampsia Foundation over the past year on the CMQCC task force developing a Preeclampsia Toolkit, and I am a big fan of their executive director, Eleni Tsigas, and frequent re-tweeter of @preeclampsia).

The Preeclampsia Foundation released a new guide to pregnancy and birth books last month, a comprehensive report distilled from a review of more than 60 such books, on their accuracy, coverage and clarity of information on hypertensive complications in pregnancy.    As readers of S&S are well aware, there are numerous books geared to expectant couples, pregnant women, and male partners; by authors who claim their authority by virtue of their clinical degrees and practice, their teaching and research credentials, as well was their personal and celebrity experience.   This is the first time I’ve seen a guide to pregnancy and birth advice books from the lens of a serious disorder in pregnancy:  preeclampsia.

May was Preeclampsia Awareness Month. Hypertensive disorders of pregnancy, including elevated blood pressure, preeclampsia, eclampsia and HELLP syndrome are estimated to affect 12-22% of pregnant women and their babies each year.1 Preeclampsia is a leading cause of pregnancy-related death in the US and in the state of California, and one of the most preventable. Adverse neonatal outcomes are higher for infants born to women with pregnancies complicated by hypertension. Care guidelines have recently been developed in many countries, including the UK, Canada and Australia, with a revised practice bulletin to be released from ACOG later this year. A key focus in many of these guidelines is accurate measuring of Blood Pressure, and standardized pathways of care, depending on the clinical situation. These guidelines note that one reason for their creation is the clear evidence that the surveillance of women with suspected or confirmed preeclampsia is variable between practitioners.2,3
 Seeking to understand their experience, women turn to books, their childbirth educators and doulas to help them navigate through this new and unexpected turn into complicated pregnancy.   While many women have healthy pregnancies and births, those who are having symptoms, or have been diagnosed with preeclampsia, eclampsia or HELLP syndrome, need accurate and clear information.    Early detection, and treatment, is a proven way to lessen the severity of the disease, and mitigate its impact.  Are some pregnancy and childbirth guidebooks better than others in informing readers about these issues?

To answer this question, researchers Jennifer Carney, MA and Douglas Woelkers, MD reviewed more than 60 pregnancy and childbirth advice books and ranked them using a consistent set of criteria in five categories: Depth of Coverage, Placement of Coverage, Clarity and Accuracy of Information, Description of Symptoms, and Postpartum Concerns.  In their methods section, they note that

“Books were downgraded for out-of-date information, missing or inaccurate information and placement issues, including inaccurate or inadequate indexing.    Of the more than 60 books reviewed, none ranked above “8” in all five categories. In fact, only a handful of books scored above “8” in the category of “Postpartum Concerns,” since many books routinely state that the cure for preeclampsia and related disorders is the birth of the baby.”

Childbirth educators and doulas have strong views on the ‘best’ books to guide women through pregnancy and childbirth and might be surprised to find that even best selling books like Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth (2003) scored only a 2.6, while the much excoriated, yet highest selling advice book: What To Expect When You’re Expecting (2009) ranked last in the Preeclampsia Foundation’s TOP TEN list, with a score of 7.2.  All books reviewed are listed in the Appendix of the report.

One helpful feature of the report is a sampling of questionable claims found in pregnancy guidebooks:

“Preeclampsia never happens before the twentieth week, but your blood pressure may start to rise steadily after this. Delivery of the baby and placenta ends the problem.” From Conception, Pregnancy, and Birth by Miriam Stoppard. In rare instances preeclampsia can occur prior to 20 weeks; it can also occur up to six weeks postpartum.

The report further explains why it’s important for books on childbirth to also mention preeclampsia, eclampsia and HELLP Syndrome, since this disease can develop immediately prior to, during or after delivery.  Among the childbirth books, the reviewers found,

Only Penny Simkin’s book The Birth Partner: A Complete Guide to Childbirth for Dads, Doulas, and All Other Labor Companions (2007) provides adequate information about preeclampsia, eclampsia, and HELLP syndrome. Although this book incorrectly uses the term pregnancy-induced hypertension (PIH) to describe preeclampsia and eclampsia, it provides a useful list of symptoms and the possible treatments, including cesarean delivery. It also presents some of the emotional issues that might arise from a diagnosis of PIH and includes some information on HELLP syndrome. It acknowledges the possibility of postpartum preeclampsia and eclampsia, something that many of the general pregnancy books omit.

The report can help childbirth educators and doulas point women to the best information about hypertensive disorders, but its authors also hope these results will guide authors in future revisions.  At the very least, up to date terminology, accurate information and complete indexing is critical in revisions. Books geared primarily to women with relatively healthy pregnancies always face the challenge of balancing reassurance, the optimality of physiological birth and the diverse range of potential complications in pregnancy.  Yet such books can point readers to resources like the Preeclampsia Foundation for up-to-date and user-friendly information and community pages.

Take-away points for Childbirth Educators and Doulas:

  • Check your website and be sure to link to Preeclampsia Foundation website for unbiased, evidence-based information on this disease.  They are on Facebook too.
  • Tell your students to ask about their blood pressure at all prenatal visits and during labor.  They should know what their ‘normal’ range is, and if their BP is ever above 140 systolic or 90 diastolic, to be alert to signs and symptoms of preeclampsia, and report these changes to their care providers.
  • Many factors can affect BP readings:  BP cuff size should be appropriate, especially among women with a high BMI; the measurement should be taken while sitting, with arm at heart level; automated BP machines may underestimate the BP.
  • Remind pregnant women (and their partners) that although lots of attention will naturally be focused on the baby, they have to be alert to the new mother’s health symptoms postpartum too.  While postpartum is a whole new normal, women need to know that any significant bleeding, fever, headaches, nausea, or visual disturbances, are NOT normal, and they should follow up with their health care provider immediately.

Preeclampsia is a serious, if unlikely, complication of pregnancy.  Women diagnosed or at risk for developing hypertensive disorders of pregnancy can find accurate information for all literacy levels (and some Spanish language resources), as well as a supportive community at the Preeclampsia Foundation, a US-based 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization whose mission is to reduce maternal and infant illness and death due to preeclampsia and other hypertensive disorders of pregnancy by providing patient support and education, raising public awareness, catalyzing research and improving health care practices.


1. American College of Obsetricians and Gynecologists. Diagnosis and management of preeclampsia and eclampsia; ACOG Practice Bulletin No. 33. Obstetrics & Gynecology. 2002;99:159-167.

2. Repke JT PM, Holzman GB, Schulkin J. Hypertension in Pregnancy and Preeclampsia: Knowledge and Clinical Practice Among Obstetrician-Gynecologists. Journal of Reproductive Medicine. 2002;47(6):472-476.

3. Caetano M OM, von Dadelszen P, Hannah ME, Logan AG, Gruslin A, Willan A, Magee LA. A Survey of Canadian Practitioners Regarding Diagnosis and Evaluation of the Hypertensive Disorders of Pregnancy. Hypertens Pregnancy. 2004;23(2):197-209.

4.  Hogan JL, et al.  Hypertens Pregnancy. Body Mass Index and Blood Pressure Measurement during Pregnancy. 2011;30(4):396-400.  PMID: 20726743

Read more about Christine H. Morton, PHD on our contributor page.





Book Reviews, Childbirth Education, Guest Posts, informed Consent, Maternity Care, Medical Interventions, Patient Advocacy, Practice Guidelines, Pre-eclampsia, Pregnancy Complications, Uncategorized , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Antepartum Bedrest: Helpful or Harmful?

January 20th, 2011 by avatar

Each year approximately 750,000 women in the United States are prescribed antepartum bed rest (ABR) for a portion of their pregnancy due to (but not limited to) preterm labor contractions, incompetent cervix, placental issues, multiple gestation, vaginal bleeding, hypertension/pre-eclampsia, gestational diabetes, impaired fetal growth or oligoamnios. The amount of time spent on bed rest can be anywhere from a few days to several months and women are typically confined to bed with activity restricted (AR) to bathroom privileges only. While the indications for ABR vary, the unifying rationale for prescribing ABR and its perceived benefits remain the same—to prevent preterm labor and the delivery of a premature infant. Preterm birth is the leading cause of perinatal infant morbidity and mortality in developed countries. In 2005, 68.5% of all infant deaths <1 year old in the U.S. were in preterm infants.  The rate of preterm birth in 2005 was 12.7% in the US (and continues to climb) compared to 5-7% in European countries. (Go here and here for additional information on these statistics.)

To date, there is no data to support the efficacy of ABR in the prevention of preterm labor and premature birth. Much of the research done on antepartum bed rest actually shows that it does more harm than good (1-5).  Additionally, in-patient ABR has been shown to have worse effects on maternal and infant morbidity and mortality than ABR at home. To further investigate these findings, Judith Maloni, PhD, RN, FAAN performed an integrative literature review on the research to date. Her findings were published in the article, “Antepartum Bed Rest for Pregnancy Complications: Efficacy and Safety for Preventing Preterm Birth” (Biological Research for Nursing, October 2010,Volume 12 (2) 102-124). Although ABR has been a mainstay of clinical obstetrical practice for the past 30 years in the United States, Maloni found no evidence for its effectiveness. On the contrary, she found that there is increasing evidence that ABR leads to several negative physical and psychological effects to both mothers and babies yet these findings have not lead to a change in clinical practice. Here she presents the evidence for the practice of prescribing ABR and its associated physiologic, psychological, and experiential side effects. She also presents recommendations for additional research on ABR including the evidence that supports prescribing home care with support as a safe, efficacious and cost effective model.

Maloni chose to organize her work following the Human Response Model and its concept of physiologic, behavioral and experiential adaptation. 69 publications made up the sample for this study: 26 articles discussed the physiologic, behavioral and experiential side effects of bed rest; 17 articles compared ABR at home vs. the hospital setting; 5 meta-analyses of RCTs assessed the effectiveness of ABR; and 4 articles analyzed physician use of bed rest. Articles ranged in date from 1990 when major interest in the study of bed rest began, to the present time. The articles come from research in nursing, medicine, psychology, social, biological and aerospace sciences. Maloni searched MEDLINE, CINAHL, PubMed/Medline, and the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews.

Several conclusions emerged following the literature review, but none of them supported the idea that ABR with activity restriction (AR) is beneficial in preventing preterm labor. What quickly became apparent is that ABR/AR has some very deleterious effects on mothers and babies. Aerospace research showed that prolonged inactivity in the supine position leads to redistribution of body fluids towards the head, causing functional changes in the cardiovascular/cardiopulmonary systems, fluid and electrolytes balances, hormone balances, hematologic systems, neurosensory and vestibular systems. Additionally, the body weight distribution is shifted and the result is muscle atrophy and bone demineralization. These changes persist far into the postpartum period and may have long standing consequences. They also necessitate a longer than usual postpartum recovery due to deconditioning. Women also reported fatigue, back aches, muscle soreness, sleep changes, round ligament pain, nasal congestion, reflux and indigestion which also persisted well beyond 6 weeks postpartum.

Non-pregnant women on bed rest (astronauts) tend to lose weight due to fluid and bone loss, and occasional loss of appetite. Carbohydrate and fat metabolism are also altered during bed rest. Similar to findings with female astronauts, (pregnant) women on bed rest have been noted to either maintain or to lose weight which is dangerous for fetal growth. Three of the studies, including one which focused on multiple gestations showed that women on ABR—both in the hospital and at home—did not gain the anticipated one pound per week as recommended by the Institute of Medicine for adequate (fetal) growth.

The literature also demonstrates that behavioral changes ensue as a result of prolonged bed rest. Women reported feeling imprisoned with a sense of sensory deprivation. They worried  about their lives and their families and felt powerlessness to fix anything. This stress led to altered mood and often pre- and postpartum depression. These symptoms were most pronounced in women on hospital bed rest and remained well beyond 6 weeks postpartum. Family members were stressed as well, most notably partners who assumed the role of caring for the family in addition to their partners on bed rest. It was also noted that infants born to mothers on ABR had higher incidences of allergies, motion sickness and the need to be rocked to sleep than those infants born to mothers who were never on ABR.

Alternative Models For Antepartum High Risk Care
While ABR in the hospital is currently the standard of care in the United States, it has not been shown to reduce perinatal morbidity or mortality. The literature has shown that women on hospital ABR often had the most pronounced adverse effects, both physical and psychological. Despite these findings, ABR (in-patient ABR, in particular) continues to be prescribed.

Physicians in other countries often prescribe ABR but have patients remain at home, providing maternal and fetal monitoring as well as light housekeeping, child care, nutritional counseling, education and psychological counseling. In contrast, very limited home care assistance is available in the United States.  Home care in the U.S. consists mostly of uterine and fetal monitoring and infusions of Magnesium Sulfate or Terbutaline—medication thought to (but not proven to) inhibit contractions. Maloni’s study showed that women who underwent ABR at home with support (assistance with familial responsibilities and emotional support) actually fared better than women who completed their ABR in the hospital. Additionally, infants born to mothers who experienced ABR at home had fewer or shorter NICU admissions. All researchers concluded that, when truly warranted, home care of high risk pregnant women with ABR is as effective, safe and feasible as hospital care.

Because of the significant burden ABR puts on a pregnant woman, her fetus, her family and the U.S. health care system, and given the fact that there has been no recent evidence to support its efficacy, experts agree that bed rest should no longer be a standard component of treatment for the prevention of preterm birth. In fact, these same experts agree that the practice should be eliminated (1,,3, 5,6,7). While there may be a need for an emergent period of intense hospitalization following a crisis, experts concur that once a pregnant woman and her baby have been stabilized, they should be discharged home and managed with modified/restricted activity and supportive home care visits that not only monitor maternal and fetal well-being, but also support a women and her family psychosocially.

While some experts argue that neonatal mortality has gone down over the last 20 years, this has been primarily due to improved neonatal care in NICU’s and increased access to such care. The incidence of preterm birth has essentially remained unchanged (6,7,10).  As such, researchers are increasingly skeptical that the current U.S. model of prenatal care, in terms of prescribing bed rest for threatened pre-term birth, can prevent prematurity. While some researchers advocate the addition of steroids, sedation, psychosocial support and nutrition, other researchers note that these methods have yet to prove effective in reducing the incidence of preterm birth (6,7,11). Maloni, in agreement with their research findings, believes that there really needs to be a complete overhaul of the management of prenatal care. Maloni and others  advocate a re-evaluation and reconceptualization of prenatal care as part of a broader approach to optimize all of women’s health.


  1. Crowther, C. (2009) “Hospitalization and bed rest for multiple pregnancy.” Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, (2), CD000110. Accession number: 00075320-100000000-00712
  2. Elliott, JP, et al (2005) “A randomized multicenter study to determine the efficacy of activity restriction for preterm labor management in patients testing negative for fetal fibronectin.” Journal of Perinatology, 25, 626-630.
  3. Meher,S., Abalos, E., & Carroli, G. (2005) Bedrest with or without hospitalization for hypertension during pregnancy. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Issue 4. Art. No.: CD003514. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD003514.pub2. Last update January 18, 2010.
  4. Say, L., Gulmezoglu, A.M., & Hofmeyer, G.J. (2009) Bed rest in hospital for suspected impaired fetal growth. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, (3), CD000034. Accession number: 00075320-100000000-01075.
  5. Sosa, C., Althabe, F., Belizan, J., & Bergel, E. (2009) “Bed rest in singleton pregnancies for preventing preterm birth.” Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, (2), CD003581. Accession Number: 00075320-100000000-02667.
  6. Goldenberg, R.L. (2002) “The management of preterm labor.” Obstetrics and Gynecology, 100. 1020-1037.
  7. Lu, M. C., et al (2003) “Preventing low birth weight: Is prenatal care the answer?” Journal of Maternal-Fetal & Neonatal Medicine, 13, 362-380.
  8. Heaman, M., Sprague, A.E., & Stewart, P.J.A. (2001) Reducing the preterm birth rate: A population health strategy.” Birth (30) 20-29.
  9. Hodnett, E.D., Fredericks, S. (2009) “Support during pregnancy for women at increased risk of low birthweight babies.” Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews , (2) CD 000198. Accession number: 00075320-100000000-00157.

Posted By: Darline Turner-Lee, MHS, PA-C

Bed Rest, Do No Harm, Practice Guidelines, Pregnancy Complications, Research, Science & Sensibility, Systematic Review , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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