Diagnosing Pre-Eclampsia

Pre-eclampsia is a condition that affects a number of women during the latter half of their pregnancy, presenting at first with a usually un-noticeable increase in blood pressure and the presence of protein in urine. These symptoms can worsen as the condition progresses, and it is usually first time, younger (teenage), and older (over 40) mums that are most susceptible to the condition.

This article discusses how pre-eclampsia is tested, and when diagnosed, how your doctor is likely to go about treating the condition.

How is pre-eclampsia diagnosed through blood pressure readings?

As mentioned in the introduction to this article, pre-eclampsia usually presents with high blood pressure, referred to medically as hypertension. This is one of the reasons why blood pressure is monitored almost constantly throughout a pregnancy.

Your blood pressure is essentially a measure of how your blood is flowing through your vessels, or more specifically, the force with which it is passing through those vessels. Your blood pressure will essentially be two numbers with the unit mmHg (which means millimetres of mercury and is the standard unit used for measuring blood pressure). The first of these numbers is the systolic pressure, which measures the pressure of blood flowing through your vein when you heart is contracting and pushing blood out. The second is the diastolic pressure, which is the opposite, the pressure in your veins when your heart is resting between contractions.

The equipment used for BP measurements is the sphygmomanometer, which is just a fancy word for the special cuff linked to a mercury scale used to this end. Your blood pressure will be given as systolic pressure/diastolic pressure, and so will read something like 120/80 or 120mmHg/80mmHg. Your blood pressure is considered high when the systolic pressure is above 140mmHg, and the diastolic pressure above 90mmHg (which would read 140/90). A systolic pressure above 160 and a diastolic reading of above 110mmHg is considered severe hypertension.

So in short if you get a blood pressure reading and are given a reading above 140/90 you will be hypertensive, which, if you are pregnant, means that you have one of the two main symptoms of pre-eclampsia. On its own hypertension does not mean that you have pre-eclampsia, your doctor or midwife will need to perform a urine test to check for the second hallmark of the condition: proteinuria. The presence of protein in your urine is abnormal, and is usually a sign of the faulty placental development thought to cause pre-eclampsia.

How is pre-eclampsia diagnosed using urine testing?

A urine test is usually performed during every antenatal appointment, and is a straightforward matter of testing a sample of urine with a dipstick. A dipstick is made up of chemicals which change colour in the presence of whatever it is that they are looking for, in this case, protein. If the dipstick test is positive, then your doctor is likely to request further testing just to make sure of their diagnosis of pre-eclampsia.

Further testing

Any further testing is usually performed on the basis of one of the two tests already mentioned. If you test positive for protein in your urine and hypertension, then more antenatal appointments will be scheduled to keep an eye on your health. If symptoms worsen, for example if you start experiencing severe headaches and nausea, you might be admitted to a dedicated hospital ward for observation.

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