Demystifying Preeclampsia

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Pregnancy Preeclampsia

This year, nearly one out of every 10 pregnant women will develop a condition that can pose a threat to her health and the life of her unborn child.

Preeclampsia, a condition that occurs uniquely in pregnancy, is characterized by high blood pressure and the presence of protein in a woman's urine. A study currently underway at the University of Wisconsin Medical School by Dr. Dinesh Shah, a UW Health perinatologiost, will help researchers and doctors better understand how the condition develops, and ultimately, how to prevent it.

"Preeclampsia is one of the most common medical complications in pregnancy," says Dr. Shah. "Yet I don't believe there is an awareness of how serious the condition can be."

Preeclampsia causes blood vessels to constrict, limiting blood flow to the uterus and other vital organs. It poses a risk by decreasing the blood supply to the placenta, which provides the baby with oxygen and food. The condition often results in premature birth and can cause serious complications for the child.

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Most women diagnosed with preeclampsia later in their pregnancy go on to deliver healthy babies, but the disorder is responsible for nearly 15 percent of premature births. At this time, the only known cure for preeclampsia is delivery of the fetus.

However, when preeclampsia occurs early in pregnancy, delivery is not a viable option. In this case, doctors often prescribe medicines to lower a woman's blood pressure and give the baby more time to develop. In more severe cases, the mother may be put on bedrest or even hospitalized for the remainder of the pregnancy.

Although all women have some risk of developing preeclampsia, certain underlying conditions and situations increase the risk.

During First Pregnancy

"The condition most often occurs in the first pregnancy, in young women, as well as women with cardiovascular conditions, diabetes and lupus," says Dr. Shah. "However, we occasionally see it in subsequent pregnancies and in women who have none of these preexisting conditions."

Dr. Shah's research focuses on how preeclampsia develops in pregnant women, specifically regulation of the renin-angiotensin system, which controls the amount of blood flow to the women's uterus, kidney, liver and brain. Knowing exactly how this system works will help physicians diagnose preclampsia earlier, allowing more time to treat the patient and her developing fetus. Dr. Shah's future research will focus on diabetic women and why they are more susceptible to preeclampsia.

For more information on preeclampsia, please call 608-267-6990. - MADISON

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