Magnesium sulfate therapy for treatment of eclampsia is cited as one of the 56 essential evidence-based interventions that together could potentially eliminate the untimely deaths of 358,000 women and 7.6 million children in low- and middle-income countries [43
]. The drug currently appears on 50% of the essential medicines lists from 89 countries [44
] and has recently been included as one of 13 essential commodities in the UN Commission on Essential Drugs for Maternal and Child Health [45
Despite global consensus about its effectiveness and safety, clinicians in many countries continue to demonstrate reluctance to use the drug in their management of women with severe pre-eclampsia or eclampsia. Concerns have been raised about both anticipated side effects of the drug, such as warmth, somnolence and neurological depression, as well as adverse side effects relating to potential toxicity of the drug, including absent patellar reflexes and respiratory depression that can lead to cardiac depression and death.
The pharmacological effect of the drug is minor to moderate neurological depression, typically manifested as diminished reflexes and somnolence. Some clinicians equate this with impending toxicity despite information which demonstrates that serum levels where neurological depression is seen (4 – 7
mEq/L) are substantially lower than serum levels that are associated with the toxicity-related side effects of absent patellar reflexes (>10
mEq/L), respiratory depression (>13
mEq/L) or cardiac (25
mEq/L) dysfunction [46
]. The concerns about adverse side effects have sometimes resulted in a reluctance to use magnesium sulfate without the availability of the antidote calcium gluconate, or ability to measure serum magnesium levels. This reluctance has also contributed to the persistence of the use of diazepam or lytic cocktails, which are known to be both inferior in effectiveness and without clinical antidote. This integrative review provides a summary of the incidence of adverse side effects and seeks to clarify the safety profile of magnesium sulfate when used for prevention or treatment of eclamptic seizures.
McDonald et al. [47
] recently conducted a systematic review of maternal and infant outcomes following magnesium sulfate therapy, and addressed the issue of drug safety. Findings from that systematic review, which included studies from both developed and developing countries indicated that the use of magnesium sulfate for pre-eclampsia reduced the risk for progression of the disease, and that use of the drug among patients with eclampsia was associated with lower risks of maternal death, recurrent seizures and major morbidity. Other clinical reviews and toxicology studies also indicate that the drug is safe to use, for indicated purposes, in recommended dosages and according to standardized protocol for administration and monitoring of the drug [13
]. Findings from this integrative review enhance what is known about the incidence and severity of side effects when the drug is used appropriately.
We made the assumption in our extraction protocol that if a side effect or event was not reported it did not occur. Five outcomes (Tables , and ) were specifically mentioned in the methods section of the various articles at a range of 38% (use of calcium gluconate) to 75% (respiratory depression). Additionally, several studies reported on one or more of these same outcomes, even if not specifically noted in the study methods. In the interest of reviewing the potential for bias in our methodological approach we computed the incidence of side effects/outcomes, using only the subset of studies in which each of these was specifically reported. Accordingly, the calculated incidence of each side effect/outcome in this subset was higher. We acknowledge that our assumption that the event itself did not occur (rather than was simply not reported) may have resulted in an underestimate of the actual incidence of any specific side effect, a limitation of this study.
Across all studies in which the occurrence of a side effect was reported, the incidence of affected patellar reflex (sluggish or absent) did not exceed 1.6% and the incidence of respiratory depression was 1.3%. Although in four study groups totaling less than 150 subjects there were reported incidences of affected patellar reflex of up to 57%, only one subject was reported as experiencing respiratory depression, a more serious symptom that is observed with higher serum concentrations of magnesium [28
]. These same three studies also reported the highest frequency of skipped doses, from 30-60%, but some doses were skipped due to provider or patient preference.
In the Magpie study which had the largest study group of over 5000 subjects, the incidence of the two adverse side effects was roughly the same, around 1% [9
]. This trial also reported that 187 subjects skipped doses but in over 60% of those subjects (n =114), the dose was skipped due to oliguria or renal failure, a manifestation of the disease and not due to magnesium sulfate. In the study by Mundle [31
], a total of 25 women in the two groups had scheduled doses of magnesium withheld; 10 due to signs of toxicity (usually depressed tendon reflexes), one due to oliguria and 14 due to provider or patient preference or other side effects [Personal communication Bracken, July 11, 2012].
The relatively more common perception of side effects and higher frequency of skipped doses among studies with smaller populations are in contrast to the lower frequency of skipped doses among the studies with larger populations. This may suggest that with greater use of the drug and the experience that comes with managing a larger number of women on magnesium clinicians become more skilled at evaluating the patient and understanding the normal response to the drug.
Calcium gluconate use was extremely infrequent. It would require 555 women to be treated in order to experience one situation in which administration of calcium gluconate would be needed (Table ). Given that the studies reviewed were prospective clinical trials of magnesium sulfate, the reviewers assumed that even if availability of calcium gluconate was not explicitly stated by the authors, it was present as part of prudent research implementation. Therefore we also assume that the low use reflects an infrequent need for its use as an antidote to the magnesium rather than due to its unavailability [50
Estimates of clinical impact
Almost half of the studies were conducted in India and Bangladesh and many of these compared standard regimens with lower dose regimens. In these countries, it is felt that lower doses are justified based on the smaller size (lower weight) of the women. Studies do show that lower doses may be equally as effective as the standard regimens in preventing seizures for women with severe pre-eclampsia [21
], with resultant fewer side effects. Two studies indicated that the lower dose regimen was less effective when used for treatment of women who had eclampsia [28
Still, if concerns about drug toxicity can be set aside, additional concerns continue to be expressed about the impact on health systems and services, when magnesium sulfate is prescribed as therapy. Particular concerns are expressed more frequently by health care administrators and providers who serve in lower-resource settings [52
]. It is for this reason that our report excluded studies conducted in high-income countries. Treatment approaches may differ in higher-resource settings (e.g., use of intravenous infusion pumps, rather than intramuscular administration); and lower patient/staff ratios typically enable more vigilant patient monitoring in these settings.
The chronic shortage of health care personnel to provide the one-to-one observation and support of women is frequently cited as a barrier to provision of quality care. Task shifting (task sharing) among various professional and lesser-skilled cadres may contribute to the solution of the health workforce problem [15
]. Still, in a hospital that conducts 5,000 deliveries annually, and assuming a rate of PE/E of 5%, under normal use of magnesium sulfate regimens for women with PE/E, and without medication errors, a case of affected patellar reflexes would be experienced once every three months and a case of respiratory depression just less than once every four months. Use of calcium gluconate would be required once every 27 months, making it a rare event (Table ).
Based on incidence of the two adverse effects, 61 – 77 pre-eclamptic or eclamptic women would need to be observed during treatment in order to identify one adverse effect of magnesium sulfate, leading to the decision to delay or skip a dose (Table ). However, the results show that a dose would be skipped every 27 women observed, supporting the finding that some doses were skipped for reasons other than experiencing side effects of magnesium sulfate administration.
Measuring and recording urine output should be straightforward in most countries as it is recommended that all women with PE/E should be catheterized [14
], and therefore monitoring should not create high demand on the time of health care personnel. There is also little support for the need to conduct laboratory analyses of urine samples. Nisell et al. [58
] found that blood sampling for assessment of renal function and 24 hour urine collections for measurement of albumin had little added value in anticipating the risk for developing maternal complications of pre-eclampsia. However, in light of the pathophysiologic progression of the disease process, the occurrence of oliguria is highly predictive of the risk of maternal mortality (RR 5.39; 95% CI 1.80 – 10.69; [59
]). Data from the present study also indicate that oliguria occurs with some high degree of frequency (4.72% of aggregate women).
Similarly, there should be little concern about the impact on clinical laboratory resources for measurement of serum magnesium levels. Studies that correlated serum magnesium levels with clinical indicators conclude that these measurements should be limited to cases in which clinical indicators, identified through vigilant patient monitoring, suggest toxicity [27
]. Thus, the concerns about the inability to provide the necessary nursing care to women undergoing magnesium sulfate therapy, and the increased use of laboratory resources appear to be unfounded.