Woman with pre-eclampsia

When swelling turns to danger

Many moms experience swelling during pregnancy, but sometimes this is a sign of preeclampsia, a potentially dangerous condition for mom and baby.

Dr. Linda Burke-Galloway — and moms who dealt with this situation in pregnancy — share the signs, symptoms and how to have a safe pregnancy and birth.

Many moms-to-be may not be able to wear rings or fit into their favorite pair of pumps, but super swollen hands and feet, along with other symptoms, could mean more than just inconvenience — it could mean preeclampsia. It's important to understand the warning signs and talk to your doctor or midwife about treatment options to prevent eclampsia, a potentially life-threatening condition of pregnancy.

Signs you could have preeclampsia

Dr. Burke-Galloway, author of The Smart Women's Guide to Pregnancy says, "Sudden swelling of the hands, legs or face and weight gain of five pounds or greater in one week" is abnormal and you should call your doctor right away. Other symptoms include "blurry vision or spots in front of the eyes, nausea, vomiting and pain in the upper mid-abdomen area, seizures, pain in the upper right side, {and} a severe headache that won't go away with over-the-counter medication," she explains.

Treatment for preeclampsia symptoms

Your doctor or midwife will discuss your options. In general, bed rest, extra monitoring during the remainder of pregnancy and possibly labor induction may be advised.

Dr. Burke-Galloway explains, "The definitive treatment for preeclampsia is to deliver the baby because there is something in the placenta that causes high blood pressure associated with strokes and seizure disorder. Magnesium sulfate is only given to prevent seizures while the patient is in labor. If the patient's blood pressure is extremely high, medication is given to lower the blood pressure while the patient is being induced."

Learn more about inducing labor >>

Moms who had preeclampsia

Molly F. says, "I had been swelling since about Christmas and could barely wear shoes at this point — not even flip-flops — my feet were too fat!" During a regular prenatal appointment, her blood pressure was high and there was protein in her urine. "My doctor, who was usually so calm and never made a big deal out of anything up until this point, became very intense and focused and said to me, 'I'm very serious — you need to follow my strict orders of complete bed rest. We are going to monitor you very closely now, and you will come to see me every three days until we can get you to at least 37 weeks,'" she explains.

Tips for surviving pregnancy bed rest >>

When it had been 37 weeks to the day, Molly's labor was induced and she delivered a healthy daughter. She had some complications following delivery, and was closely monitored when she started having high blood pressure toward the end of her second pregnancy. "They say that even though you have preecplampsia once, it doesn't necessarily mean that you will get it with subsequent pregnancies — I was just lucky that this was the case," Molly says. "But by having an attentive doctor (and practice) who took my history seriously, I felt that I had a healthier second pregnancy by being aware of — and possibly preventing — preecplampsia symptoms."

Rebecca B. had high blood pressure during both of her pregnancies. She was given magnesium sulfate during her first labor, but her second baby had other plans. "My midwife was planning on starting natural induction methods at my 9:00 a.m. appointment the day before my due date. My water broke the night before at 11:10 p.m. and my son was born 131 minutes later. So we planned to naturally induce because of the preeclampsia, but ended up not needing to — whew!"

Bottom line?

"Trust your instincts," says Dr. Burke-Galloway. "If something doesn't seem or feel right, contact your doctor immediately. Early recognition of signs and symptoms of preeclampsia saves lives."

Read more about pregnancy

How is preeclampsia treated?
Warning signs: Pregnancy symptoms you can't ignore
Hypertension in pregnancy tied to menopause woes

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