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What is Hyperemesis Gravidarum?

By O. Wallace
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Hyperemesis gravidarum is a severe form of morning sickness in pregnant women. It involves vomiting and severe nausea, which can lead to weight loss and an imbalance in electrolytes, as well as dehydration. Many pregnant women experience nausea; in fact, approximately 70 to 80% of pregnant women experience morning sickness. Only one percent of pregnant women have hyperemesis gravidarum.

Some women experience mild nausea with no vomiting during pregnancy, while others have no nausea at all. The difference between hyperemesis gravidarum and morning sickness is the severity of the condition. With hyperemesis gravidarum, nausea with vomiting are severe. Unlike typical morning sickness, which resolves by about 12 weeks gestation, hyperemesis gravidarum usually lingers throughout the pregnancy. A woman with hyperemesis gravidarum will become dehydrated and may have difficulty keeping some food, if any, down.

Symptoms of hyperemesis gravidarum are those typically associated with nausea and severe vomiting. They include aversion to some foods, loss of weight — at least five percent one’s body weight, reduced urine production, dehydration, headaches, lightheadedness, and fainting. The frequent vomiting associated with hyperemesis gravidarum can cause gastric ulcers and bleeding of the esophagus.

While the exact cause of hyperemesis gravidarum is still unknown, the dramatic surge in hormones after conception is known to cause nausea. Research has shown that there are some risk factors associated with hyperemesis gravidarum, including untreated asthma, a high fat diet, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), high stress, multiples, and epilepsy, among others. If a woman has a history of motion sickness, migraines, premenstrual nausea, female family members with hyperemesis gravidarum, or diseases of the kidney, liver, or gallbladder, she may be more disposed to hyperemesis gravidarum.

In milder cases of hyperemesis gravidarum, treatment may include acupressure bands that apply pressure to the inner wrist to help with nausea. Herbs such as ginger and peppermint can also be helpful, as well as hypnosis. For more serious cases, medicines such as metoclopramide or antireflux medications may be prescribed. When a woman is unable to keep food down, she may have to be admitted to a hospital for intravenous (IV) fluids and/or feeding tubes.

For years, women suffering from hyperemesis gravidarum were thought to be “faking it” or exhibiting psychosomatic symptoms. Even today, some doctors are slow to take a woman’s complaints seriously. Research has shown that the condition is not psychosomatic, although more research must be conducted to find better treatments. Some studies have shown that an estimated 200 million US dollars (USD) is spent each year in the US on the treatment of hyperemesis gravidarum.

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