Preeclampsia Awareness Month: Four Facts Childbirth Educators Can Share with Families About Preeclampsia

By Laney Poye, Preeclampsia Foundation Director of Community Relations

Pre e AM 2016.jpgMay is National Preeclampsia Awareness Month and the Preeclampsia Foundation has focused this year’s campaign on “Faces of Preeclampsia: Any Woman, Any Pregnancy” to focus on the many myths that exist around this life-threatening disorder of pregnancy.  Preeclampsia is one of the top perinatal causes of maternal and infant death in the United States. Today on Science & Sensibility, Preeclampsia Foundation Director of Community Relations Laney Poye provides a look at four important things that childbirth educators can share to educate families about preeclampsia. You can also “Test Your Preeclampsia IQand show off how much you know about the disease. Have you checked out the information available at the Preeclampsia Foundation's website?  There is a great short video, class tear sheets, and even information en español. (Including this video in Spanish - "7 Symptoms Every Pregnant Woman Should Know/7 Simptomas Que Toda Mujer Embarazada." How do you cover preeclampsia with the families that you work with?  Let us know in the comments sections what your favorite resources are. - Sharon Muza, Science & Sensibility Community Manager

Myths about preeclampsia are everywhere, both before and after a pregnant woman experiences the condition. As the Preeclampsia Foundation staff person who engages with patients, I am often at the frontline of sharing credible, research-driven facts with the patients we serve. Sometimes myths are passed along by their peers. Sometimes myths can even be passed along by well-meaning, but misinformed care providers! It’s our goal to make sure that patients are empowered with the information they need to understand their pregnancies.

Childbirth educators play a key role in informing families about the symptoms of this disease and providing emotional support during pregnancy and after delivery. They may also serve as the first line of defense in noticing that a pregnant person is not looking or feeling well and needs to check in with their health care provider..

So here are four facts that you can share with your clients and students to ensure their best pregnancy outcomes!

1. Symptoms of preeclampsia can often look like "normal" pregnancy symptoms.

Unless a patient is monitoring their own blood pressure at home, the signs of preeclampsia (high blood pressure and protein in the urine) are generally measured at a regular prenatal appointment. That means that the patient, a family member, or even an outside individual such as a childbirth educator may be the first person to notice that something isn’t right. Symptoms of preeclampsia, especially ones like swelling, weight gain, headache, and general discomfort, can be very common in the second and third trimesters. Patients and providers both should err on the side of caution if the patient is showing these symptoms, as preeclampsia can rapidly worsen.

It's also important to know that some people with preeclampsia have NO symptoms or they "just don’t feel right," which is why expecting parents should not skip a regular prenatal appointment. If a person has a sense that something's wrong with their pregnancy, even without symptoms, they should trust themself and contact their healthcare provider immediately to get checked out.

2. Preeclampsia can show up in the postpartum period.

One of the most common myths that patients hear is that “delivery is the cure for preeclampsia.” While delivery of the baby and the placenta begins the healing process for the patient, preeclampsia can continue or even manifest for the first time after delivery.

At the Preeclampsia Foundation, we often use the metaphor of a train to describe the way that preeclampsia and HELLP syndrome can progress. Delivering the baby is like pulling the brakes, but the “train” may continue barreling down the tracks, causing lingering issues with the person’s cardiovascular system and organs. Pregnant people who have had preeclampsia may require a longer stay at their healthcare facility, with careful monitoring during the postpartum period.

Hypertensive disorders of pregnancy are responsible for approximately 7.6% of all maternal deaths in the US. Unfortunately, the majority of maternal deaths due to preeclampsia happen in the postpartum period. Just like in the prenatal period, people should be educated after delivery and discharge to monitor their blood pressure and immediately report any symptoms such as shortness of breath, severe swelling of the hands and face, and/or severe headache to their healthcare providers.

3. Preeclampsia is a traumatic experience with wide-ranging emotional and mental impacts on a new parent and their whole family.

From the onset of symptoms to the complications that often arise during labor and delivery, preeclampsia is a condition that disturbs the precious and miraculous endeavor of becoming a parent. Research studies have shown that people who have experienced traumatic pregnancies, including preeclampsia and HELLP syndrome, are at a much greater risk for perinatal mood disorders such as postpartum depression, postpartum anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A recent study shows that people who survive preeclampsia are four times more likely to experience PTSD than people who undergo healthy pregnancies.

The personal support system and professional expertise that a childbirth educator, doula, or lactation consultant can provide may make all the difference in the world to promote postpartum mental and emotional health for a new parent.

You can help these new parents to know that:

  1. Even if the parent and baby are both okay, they have still been through an incredibly difficult experience. It’s okay for them to mourn the loss of her expected pregnancy experience.
  2. They are not alone in feeling stress, anxiety, or depression following a traumatic childbirth experience.
  3. If they ares experiencing feelings of stress, anxiety of depression, it’s okay to ask for help. Ask for a referral to a mental health professional who specializes in pregnancy-related trauma or loss.

4. Patients are critical to understanding what causes preeclampsia and how we can better treat it.

In the Science & Sensibility community, we love research and know that it helps us to drive practice change! Research efforts this past decade have produced exciting breakthroughs that may bring us closer to finding the cause of preeclampsia, help us improve diagnosis and prediction, and lead to prevention and new treatments. But research needs far more support and funding if we hope to find the true cause of preeclampsia, as well as a way to prevent or cure it.

There has been a great movement in recent years with initiatives like the Patient-Center Outcomes Research Initiative and the Council on Patient Safety in Women’s Health Care Alliance for Innovation on Maternal Health (AIM) to recognize that patients are at the heart of moving forward basic research science and care practice improvements. Patients have important insights into the entire patient journey and among other things, what factors can contribute to poor outcomes.

There is still so much unknown and misunderstood about preeclampsia. Families affected by preeclampsia can help save the lives of new parents and babies by participating in research. The Preeclampsia Registry is focused on capturing the patient experience along with standardized health data over several years in the hopes of shedding light on the long-term impact of hypertensive disorders of pregnancy, as well as discovering preventions and treatments. Visit www.preeclampsiaregistry.org to learn more.

About Laney Poye

Laney Poye Head Shot 2016.jpgLaney Poye is the Director of Community Relations for the Preeclampsia Foundation. She is responsible for coordinating patient and professional education outreach programs, contributing to research studies, engaging with international partners, and serving as the Foundation's webmaster and social media outreach coordinator. She currently oversees the organization’s volunteer leaders and community partners to further the Foundation's fundraising, development, patient support and communications, and leads the national team for the Foundation's signature awareness event, The Promise Walk for Preeclampsia.

Laney received her Master’s degree in International Affairs from Florida State University. Her studies focused primarily on global issues of women’s health and welfare, with an emphasis on determining sustainable change for women in low-resource settings. She has spent many years volunteering for health causes and is an enthusiastic supporter of increasing awareness and advancing medical understanding of this devastating pregnancy condition.

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