Eclampsia is a very serious complication of preeclampsia characterized by one or more seizures during pregnancy or in the postpartum period. In the developed world, eclampsia is rare and usually treatable if appropriate intervention is promptly sought. Left untreated, eclamptic seizures can result in coma, brain damage, and possibly maternal or infant death.
What is eclampsia?
Eclampsia (e-CLAMP-si-a) is a very serious complication of preeclampsia characterized by one or more seizures during pregnancy or in the postpartum period. In the developed world, eclampsia is rare and usually treatable if appropriate intervention is promptly sought. Left untreated, eclamptic seizures can result in coma, brain damage, and possibly maternal or infant death. Eclampsia has been recognized clinically for over 2,000 years, since the time of Hippocrates. The Greek physician Celsus described pregnancy-associated seizures that disappeared after delivery of the baby. Because these symptoms emerged without any warning signs, the condition was named 'eclampsia', the Greek word for 'lightning'. We now understand that these seizures were triggered by the presence of high blood pressure, or preeclampsia. It's important to note that eclampsia can occur during pregnancy or the postpartum period, even without warning signs.
Is eclampsia related to preeclampsia?
Preeclampsia is so named because it was originally identified as a disorder preceding "eclampsia" or seizures during pregnancy and the postpartum period. It is now known that eclamptic seizures are only one of the several potential complications of the disease. Eclamptic seizures usually occur as a later complication of severe preeclampsia, but may also arise without any prior signs of severe disease.
What are the signs and symptoms of eclampsia?
The main sign of eclampsia is seizures during pregnancy, but is often accompanied by high blood pressure readings. Report to your care provider if you experience symptoms of severe headache and visual changes like spots, floaters, or difficulty seeing during pregnancy or the postpartum period, as these may be indications of high blood pressure and changes to your central nervous system. Familiarize yourself with all the signs and symptoms of preeclampsia, as any may indicate the presence of high blood pressure.
How is eclampsia treated?
Magnesium sulfate (given intravenously) is the treatment of choice for severe preeclampsia to prevent eclampsia, or after eclampsia develops to prevent more seizures. Many, but not all, providers will also treat every preeclamptic patient with magnesium sulfate during labor, even when the disease may only have mild features. Eclampsia can occur even without the presence of severe preeclampsia symptoms. Magnesium treatment is generally continued for 24-48 hours after the last seizure or beyond delivery. You may receive magnesium sulfate in an intensive care unit or a labor and delivery unit. While magnesium is given you will be observed closely, receive intravenous fluids, and may have a catheter placed in your bladder to measure urine output.
Magnesium sulfate can be used by a skilled healthcare provider with appropriate support facilities. Overdoses can occur and lead to harm to your kidneys, so you should be closely monitored.
Side effects of magnesium sulfate may include drowsiness, redness, flushing or overheating, muscle fatigue or weakness, dizziness, and trouble concentrating. Symptoms typically go away shortly after the medication is stopped. Its use can be very uncomfortable, but your provider hs likely included it in your treatment to prevent a worse outcome - seizures.
Magnesium sulfate has often been compared to Epsom salts, but ingesting Epsom salts and/or magnesium vitamin supplements have not been shown to prevent maternal death due to eclamptic seizures. Magnesium levels achieved with oral therapy are not sufficient to prevent seizures. The medication should be through an IV.
For more about preeclampsia, eclampsia, or HELLP syndrome, please see our Frequently Asked Questions.
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