If you are like most of us, HELLP syndrome is not normally at the forefront of concern when we think about our pregnancy. Many women may have never heard of this issue unless you had a mother or sister with a diagnosis during pregnancy.
This is a rare, life-threatening complication that affects the blood and liver. The numbers tell us that among pregnant women in the United States, 5 to 8% will develop preeclampsia (high blood pressure).
It’s estimated that 15% of those women will develop a more severe form called HELLP syndrome. This means 48,000 women per year will develop it in the United States, according to the Preeclampsia Foundation.
What does HELLP stand for?
H: hemolysis (which is the breaking down of red blood cells)
EL: elevated liver enzymes (damage to liver cells causes changes in the way the liver works)
LP: low platelet count (platelets are cells in the blood that helps the blood to clot to control bleeding)
The cause is unclear to many doctors as the symptoms often mask other medical conditions including gallbladder disease, acute hepatitis, flu or lupus flare.
Who’s at risk?
You are more likely to get this syndrome if you:
- Have preeclampsia or eclampsia during pregnancy
- Had another pregnancy with HELLP syndrome
- Have a sister or mother who had HELLP syndrome
What are the symptoms?
If you are pregnant, it’s important to watch for any symptoms and report your concerns to your OB/GYN. HELLP typically occurs in the later stages of pregnancy or can occur within 48 hours of delivery. It may take up to 7 days to become evident.
- Fatigue or feeling unwell
- Fluid retention and excess weight gain
- Nausea and vomiting that continues to get worse
- Pain in the upper right or mid part of the abdomen
- Blurry vision
- Nosebleed or other bleeding that will not stop easily (rare)
- Seizures or convulsions (rare)
Can HELLP Syndrome be prevented?
According to the Preeclampsia Foundation, there is no way to prevent this illness, but there are some things you can do:
- Get yourself in good physical shape before getting pregnant
- Have regular prenatal visits during pregnancy
- Inform your health care team about any previous high-risk pregnancies or family history of HELLP syndrome or other hypertensive disorders
- Understand the warning signs and report them to your doctor immediately
- Trust yourself when “something just doesn’t feel right”
How is HELLP diagnosed?
A February 2019 March of Dimes article notes that your provider will complete a physical exam to check for:
- Belly pain or soreness, especially in the upper right side
- An enlarged liver
- High blood pressure
- Swelling in your legs
Since this syndrome masks many other conditions or complications, physicians may add blood work to check enzyme levels and platelet count, or CT scan to see if there’s bleeding in your liver.
Is there a treatment plan?
HELLP syndrome is a serious condition for both mother and baby and complications may arise if left untreated. Treatment may include medications needed for mother/baby, blood transfusions for severe bleeding. The main treatment is to deliver the baby as soon as possible, even if premature if there is distress for mother and baby.
Please take the time to educate yourself on this serious pregnancy health issue and talk to your health care professional regarding any additional information.
The Information on this site is intended to raise awareness and understanding of specific health issues. It should not be used for diagnosis or a substitute for health care by your physician.