Preeclampsia and the risk of permanent brain damage to pregnant women

February 28, 2019

Posted by: Laura Barlow


The recent news story about 18 year-old Ebony Stevenson, who woke up from a four-day coma caused by pre-eclampsia to find out she had given birth to a baby girl got me thinking about the risks of pre-eclampsia to pregnant women.

Ms Stevenson said that before the birth she had gone to bed with a headache, not knowing she was pregnant as she was having regular periods and had not developed a pregnancy bump.  Indeed it was discovered after the birth that she has a rare condition called uterus didelphys (two wombs), which affects around 1 in 3,000 women.

The headaches and seizures that she suffered from were discovered to have been caused by pre-eclampsia, a condition that would most likely have been diagnosed and monitored had her pregnancy been known to healthcare professionals at an earlier stage. 

What is pre-eclampsia? 

Pre-eclampsia is a common condition in pregnancy, affecting around 5% of all pregnant women.  It’s thought to be caused by the placenta not developing properly, meaning it doesn’t get enough blood.  The defective placenta affects the mother’s blood vessels and kidneys, causing the initial symptoms of high blood pressure and protein in the mother’s urine.  Thankfully, in the UK these symptoms are usually picked up during routine antenatal appointments.

Some mothers have an increased risk of developing pre-eclampsia.  The main risk factors are having an existing medical condition such as diabetes, kidney disease or high blood pressure or having previously had pre-eclampsia.

As pre-eclampsia progresses, it can cause severe headaches, vision problems, severe heartburn, nausea, vomiting, pain below the ribs, excessive weight gain and swelling.

At present, pre-eclampsia can only be cured by delivering the baby.  Women who are diagnosed with pre-eclampsia are usually closely monitored in hospital until it’s possible to deliver the baby. 

What are the complications of preeclampsia?

If pre-eclampsia isn’t diagnosed and monitored, a number of complications can develop that could cause brain injury to the mother, including fits (eclampsia) and stroke.

An eclamptic fit is where the mother’s arms, legs, neck or jaw twitch involuntarily in repetitive, jerky movements.  While most women make a full recovery after having eclampsia, there’s a small risk of permanent disability or brain damage if the fits are severe.  Sadly, of those who have eclampsia, around 1 in 50 will die from the condition.

The blood supply to the brain can be disturbed as a result of high blood pressure caused by pre-eclampsia (a stroke).  If the brain doesn’t get enough oxygen and nutrients from the blood, brain cells will start to die, causing brain damage and possibly death.

Research into pre-eclampsia

A 2012 study by The Preeclampsia Foundation found that cognitive function, quality of life and social functioning was statistically significantly lower for women with a history of preeclampsia.

Seizure, in particular, was strongly correlated with long-term cognitive difficulty.  Further research is needed to explore these findings and to explore whether preventative treatments can be developed for women with signs of pre-eclampsia.

Claiming compensation for brain injury caused by pre-eclampsia

In the Adult Brain Injury department, we act exclusively for adults who have suffered brain injuries as a result of negligence.  We are experts in this field and are dedicated to supporting brain injured clients not only with their compensation claims but also with the ancillary support they need to flourish and achieve their potential.  If you or someone you know may have suffered a brain injury because of mis-diagnosis or mis-management of pre-eclampsia please do not hesitate to contact us.

Laura Barlow is an Associate Solicitor in the Adult Brain Injury team at Bolt Burdon Kemp.  If you would like advice about making a claim, contact Laura free of charge and in confidence on 020 7288 4859 or at laurabarlow@boltburdonkemp.co.uk.  Alternatively, complete this form and one of the solicitors in the Adult Brain Injury team will contact you.  Find out more about the Adult Brain Injury Team.

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Posted by: Laura Barlow

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