Postpartum preeclampsia is a rare condition, but that doesn’t mean it’s not serious. It affects women who are recovering from childbirth and, if left untreated, can result in complications such as seizures, pulmonary edema, stroke — or worse.
Whether or not you suffered from preeclampsia, a similar condition that occurs in women during their pregnancies, you may still be at risk for postpartum preeclampsia — in fact, the condition strikes women who did not experience the former during pregnancy more frequently than those who did. So, what happens if you have it? What are the symptoms associated with it? And how do you catch and treat it early?
Here’s what to know and look for.
What is postpartum preeclampsia?
Shortly after childbirth — usually within 2–7 days, but sometimes up to six weeks later — women may experience postpartum preeclampsia, involving excess protein in the urine and high blood pressure. While it may not sound very serious, the condition involves some distinct signs and can result in debilitating, sometimes life-threating symptoms, described in further detail below.
While postpartum preeclampsia can be quite serious if left untreated, the prognosis is good if it is caught and treated early enough.
How is this different from preeclampsia?
Preeclampsia is a condition that occurs during pregnancy, unlike postpartum preeclampsia, which occurs after delivery. The former condition, which involves a high blood pressure of 140/90, protein in your urine and swelling, generally dissipates after you deliver your baby because your blood pressure becomes normal. This condition strictly occurs during, rather than after, your pregnancy.
Women who do not experience preeclampsia may suffer from postpartum preeclampsia; acutally, you’re more likely to have the latter condition if you don’t experience the former.
Symptoms of postpartum preeclampsia
Some women exhibit no signs of postpartum preeclampsia, while others show some or all of the following symptoms (note: these are often similar to or the same as the symptoms of preeclampsia, except that they occur after the delivery of the baby, rather than during pregnancy):
• High blood pressure or hypertension (generally over 140/90)
• Extreme headaches
• Nausea, vomiting or stomach pain
• Proteinuria (excess protein in the urine)
• Blurred vision, vision loss or any changes in your vision
• Swelling of body parts, such as your limbs or extremities
• Pain in the upper right side of the abdomen
• Decreased urination
• Weight gain, especially over a short period of time
If you exhibit some or all of these symptoms, you should seek medical attention right away. Tell your physician that you are experiencing the symptoms so that she can diagnose you and plan a course of action. (It’s also important to note that sometimes, postpartum preeclampsia exhibits no symptoms.)
Causes of postpartum preeclampsia
There are no known causes of postpartum preeclampsia or preeclampsia. However, there are some risk factors, as outlined in greater detail below.
Complications and risk factors
While the exact causes of postpartum preeclampsia and preeclampsia are not understood, there are some risk factors that may increase the likelihood of having either of these conditions. They include:
• Becoming pregnant at a young (below age 20) or older (above age 40) age
• Having a family history of the condition
• Hypertension during your pregnancy (gestational hypertension) or chronic high blood pressure
• Having a history of delivery multiples (such as twins, triplets, etc.)
• Having diabetes (type 1 or type 2)
If left untreated, postpartum preeclampsia may result in complications such as:
• Postpartum eclampsia (the condition with the addition of seizures), which can affect and permanently damage vital organs, including your kidneys and brain
• HELLP (hemolysis, elevated liver enzymes and low platelet count) syndrome, a life-threatening condition that destroys your red blood cells, and contributes to elevated liver enzymes
• Pulmonary edema, a condition involving excess fluid in the lungs
• Thromboembolism, a blood clot that forms and moves to other parts of the body, blocking blood vessels and sometimes cuasing a stroke or even death
These complications may sound frightening, but if postpartum preeclampsia is caught and treated right away, many patients are able to recover fully.
How is postpartum preeclampsia diagnosed?
If you suspect you have postpartum preeclampsia, you should seek medical attention immediately to avoid having the condition escalate into any of the above complications. When you visit your doctor, she will most likely perform tests and evaluations such as:
• Checking and monitoring your blood pressure
• Performing a blood test to assess your platelet count and whether your liver and kidneys are functioning properly
• Brain scan for any signs of brain damage following seizures
• Performing a urinalysis to detect protein in your urine
You may develop postpartum preeclampsia while you are still in the hospital after delivering your newborn, in which case, your physician will most likely extend your stay to monitor and evaluate your condition. Otherwise, you will need to visit your ob-gyn.
The condition is generally highly treatable, so if your physician is able to catch it early, your prognosis is very good. If you are diagnosed with postpartum preeclampsia, your treatment may involve taking blood-pressure medication, blood thinners or other medications. If you have been experiencing seizures, your doctor may also put you on anti-seizure medication; this depends on your specific symptoms, their severity and your physician’s evaluation of your condition.
Your physician will also account for other factors, such as whether you are breastfeeding and your medical history, before formulating a course of treatment for you.
Remember: postpartum preeclampsia has a good prognosis if you catch it early enough, but you do need to be proactive about paying attention to symptoms and warning signs. While you may not always experience symptoms when suffering from the condition, it is important to notice when you do so as to avoid experiencing any of the debilitating and sometimes life-threatening complications. Many women who suffer from the condition go on to live happy, healthy and completely normal lives.