Eclampsia in the 21st century

Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2022 Feb;226(2S):S1237-S1253. doi: 10.1016/j.ajog.2020.09.037. Epub 2020 Sep 24.


The reported incidence of eclampsia is 1.6 to 10 per 10,000 deliveries in developed countries, whereas it is 50 to 151 per 10,000 deliveries in developing countries. In addition, low-resource countries have substantially higher rates of maternal and perinatal mortalities and morbidities. This disparity in incidence and pregnancy outcomes may be related to universal access to prenatal care, early detection of preeclampsia, timely delivery, and availability of healthcare resources in developed countries compared to developing countries. Because of its infrequency in developed countries, many obstetrical providers and maternity units have minimal to no experience in the acute management of eclampsia and its complications. Therefore, clear protocols for prevention of eclampsia in those with severe preeclampsia and acute treatment of eclamptic seizures at all levels of healthcare are required for better maternal and neonatal outcomes. Eclamptic seizure will occur in 2% of women with preeclampsia with severe features who are not receiving magnesium sulfate and in <0.6% in those receiving magnesium sulfate. The pathogenesis of an eclamptic seizure is not well understood; however, the blood-brain barrier disruption with the passage of fluid, ions, and plasma protein into the brain parenchyma remains the leading theory. New data suggest that blood-brain barrier permeability may increase by circulating factors found in preeclamptic women plasma, such as vascular endothelial growth factor and placental growth factor. The management of an eclamptic seizure will include supportive care to prevent serious maternal injury, magnesium sulfate for prevention of recurrent seizures, and promoting delivery. Although routine imagining following an eclamptic seizure is not recommended, the classic finding is referred to as the posterior reversible encephalopathy syndrome. Most patients with posterior reversible encephalopathy syndrome will show complete resolution of the imaging finding within 1 to 2 weeks, but routine imaging follow-up is unnecessary unless there are findings of intracranial hemorrhage, infraction, or ongoing neurologic deficit. Eclampsia is associated with increased risk of maternal mortality and morbidity, such as placental abruption, disseminated intravascular coagulation, pulmonary edema, aspiration pneumonia, cardiopulmonary arrest, and acute renal failure. Furthermore, a history of eclamptic seizures may be related to long-term cardiovascular risk and cognitive difficulties related to memory and concentration years after the index pregnancy. Finally, limited data suggest that placental growth factor levels in women with preeclampsia are superior to clinical markers in prediction of adverse pregnancy outcomes. This data may be extrapolated to the prediction of eclampsia in future studies. This summary of available evidence provides data and expert opinion on possible pathogenesis of eclampsia, imaging findings, differential diagnosis, and stepwise approach regarding the management of eclampsia before delivery and after delivery as well as current recommendations for the prevention of eclamptic seizures in women with preeclampsia.

Keywords: abruption; angiogenic; cardiovascular; cerebral edema; convulsions; fetal death; fetal growth restriction; hypertensive disorder of pregnancy; magnesium sulfate; maternal mortality; placental growth factor; posterior reversible encephalopathy syndrome; seizures; severe maternal morbidity; soluble endoglin; soluble fms-like tyrosine kinase-1; vascular endothelial growth factor.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anticonvulsants / therapeutic use
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain Edema / pathology
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Diagnostic Techniques, Neurological
  • Eclampsia / diagnosis*
  • Eclampsia / epidemiology
  • Eclampsia / therapy*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Infant, Newborn, Diseases / etiology
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Placenta Growth Factor / blood
  • Pre-Eclampsia / prevention & control
  • Pregnancy
  • Prognosis
  • Risk Factors
  • Seizures / drug therapy
  • Seizures / etiology
  • Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor Receptor-1 / blood


  • Anticonvulsants
  • Placenta Growth Factor
  • FLT1 protein, human
  • Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor Receptor-1