Most women who have had a baby will remember having their blood pressure checked frequently during the pregnancy. These blood pressure checks, along with regular urine tests, are part of routine ante-natal (before birth) care of mothers and babies. Although these visits to the doctor or clinic may seem a nuisance to pregnant mothers who are feeling perfectly well, they are very important, especially in the later stages of the pregnancy.
Apart from making sure that the fetus (unborn baby) is growing and developing normally, a very important reason for regular ante-natal care is the early detection of a condition known as pre-eclampsia, also known as pre-eclamptic toxaemia, or just ‘toxaemia’.
Pre-eclamptic toxaemia, which occurs only in pregnancy, has several features. An increase in blood pressure and the appearance of protein in the urine are 2 important signs that toxaemia is developing. Other features include oedema (swelling) usually of the face and hands, headaches and stomach pains. The sudden onset of headaches, especially late in pregnancy, should prompt an urgent check up with your doctor or ante-natal clinic.
Toxaemia can cause problems with the placenta — the connection between mother and baby. A poorly functioning placenta, with inadequate blood supply, is not good for the developing baby, which may not grow as well as it should before birth.
As well as causing problems for the baby, toxaemia is not good for mothers. If the condition gets out of control, convulsions (fits) can occur and, fortunately rarely, strokes and death of the mother have happened.
The only ‘cure’ is for the baby to be born. In the early stages, simple measures such as bed rest may control the situation, but if the signs of toxaemia and poor fetal growth persist, it will often be necessary to interrupt the pregnancy and get the baby born a week or 2 early.
Women with high blood pressure during pregnancy need to have their blood pressure closely monitored and treated if necessary with either rest or medications. Most cases of pregnancy-induced high blood pressure can be well managed, and do not result in toxaemia and the need for labour to be induced prematurely.
Fortunately, it is rare these days to see any of the more serious consequences for mothers and babies of toxaemia. But this is largely due to the regular checks in the ante-natal period.
Last Reviewed: 18 April 2009