Is HELLP Syndrome?
HELLP syndrome is a group of
symptoms that can develop in pregnant women. It includes:
- EL: elevated liver enzymes
- LP: a low platelet count
Hemolysis refers to a breakdown of red blood
cells. In people with hemolysis, the red blood cells get broken down too soon.
This may result in low red blood cell levels and can eventually lead to anemia, a condition in which the blood doesn’t carry
enough oxygen to the rest of your body.
Elevated liver enzymes indicate that your liver isn’t functioning
properly. Inflamed or injured liver cells leak high amounts of certain
chemicals, including enzymes, into your blood.
Platelets help with blood clotting. When platelet
levels are low, you’re at risk for excessive and bleeding.
HELLP syndrome affects less than 1 percent of all pregnancies. However, it is a major
health concern because it can be life-threatening to both the mother and the unborn
baby. Prompt treatment and delivery of the baby are generally required for the
HELLP syndrome usually develops
in the last trimester of pregnancy, before the 37th week. However, the cause of
symptoms is unknown. Some experts believe HELLP syndrome is related to preeclampsia, a pregnancy
complication that causes high blood pressure. There are also certain factors
that can increase your risk of developing HELLP syndrome.
Are the Symptoms of HELLP Syndrome?
HELLP syndrome symptoms are very
similar to those of the flu. They may also seem to be “normal” side effects of
pregnancy. However, it’s important see your doctor right away if you’re
experiencing any flu-like symptoms during pregnancy. Only your doctor can
ensure that your symptoms aren’t indicative of serious health issues.
The symptoms of HELLP syndrome
may vary from person-to-person, but the most common ones include:
generally unwell or fatigued
- stomach pain
You may also experience:
especially in the hands or face
and sudden weight gain
vision or changes in vision
- heartburn or
- shoulder pain
- pain when
In rare cases, you may also have
excessive nosebleeds and seizures.
Are the Risk Factors for HELLP Syndrome?
The cause of HELLP syndrome is
unknown, but there are certain factors that may increase your risk of
Preeclampsia is the greatest risk factor. This
condition is marked by high blood pressure and swelling, and it typically occurs
during the last trimester of pregnancy. However, not all pregnant women with
preeclampsia will develop HELLP syndrome.
Other risk factors include:
- being over
- being very
- having previous
- having a
- having diabetes
You’re also at a higher risk for HELLP
syndrome if you had the condition during a previous pregnancy. In fact, your
risk can increase by 19 to 27 percent in each future pregnancy.
Is HELLP Syndrome Diagnosed?
Your doctor will perform a
physical exam and order various tests if HELLP syndrome is suspected. During
the exam, your doctor may feel for abdominal tenderness, an enlarged liver, and
any excess swelling. These can be signs of a liver problem. Your doctor may
check your blood pressure as well.
Certain tests can also help your
doctor make a diagnosis. Your doctor may order a:
- blood test to evaluate platelet levels and
red blood cell count
- urine test to check for elevated liver
enzymes and abnormal proteins
- CT scan to determine whether there’s bleeding
in the liver
Is HELLP Syndrome Treated?
Once a HELLP syndrome diagnosis
is confirmed, delivery of the baby is the best way to prevent complications. In
many cases, the baby is born prematurely.
However, your treatment may vary
depending on the severity of your symptoms and how close you are to your due
date. If your HELLP syndrome symptoms are mild or if your baby is less than 34
weeks old, your doctor may recommend:
- bedrest, either
at home or in the hospital
transfusions to treat anemia and low platelet levels
sulfate to prevent seizures
medication to control blood pressure
medication to help your baby’s lungs mature in case an early delivery is needed
During treatment, your doctor
will monitor your red blood cell, platelet, and liver enzyme levels. Your
baby’s health will also be watched closely. Your doctor may recommend certain
prenatal tests that evaluate movement, heart rate, stress, and blood flow.
You may be given medications to
help induce labor if your doctor determines that your condition requires
immediate delivery of your baby. In some cases, a cesarean delivery may be performed.
However, this can cause complications if you have blood-clotting issues related
to low platelet levels.
Is the Long-Term Outlook for Women with HELLP Syndrome?
Most women with HELLP syndrome
will recover completely if the condition is treated early. Symptoms also improve
significantly after the baby is delivered. In fact, most symptoms and side
effects will go away within two to three days after delivery.
Perhaps the biggest concern is the
impact HELLP syndrome can have on the baby. Most babies are delivered early
when the mothers develop HELLP syndrome, so there’s often a greater risk of
complications from premature delivery. Babies who are born before 37 weeks are
carefully monitored in the hospital before they are able to go home.
Complications of HELLP Syndrome
Complications associated with
HELLP syndrome include:
- blood clots
- kidney failure
- acute respiratory failure
- fluid in the
bleeding during delivery
abruption, which occurs when the placenta detaches from the uterus before the
baby is born
Early treatment is the key to
preventing these complications. However, some complications may occur during
treatment. Symptoms of HELLP syndrome can also affect you and your baby after
HELLP syndrome isn’t preventable
in most pregnant women because the cause of the condition isn’t known. However,
people with preeclampsia can lower their risk for HELLP syndrome by maintaining
a healthy lifestyle. This includes exercising regularly and eating a
heart-healthy diet that consists of whole grains, vegetables, fruit, and lean
protein. It’s also important to contact your doctor immediately if you’re
experiencing symptoms of HELLP syndrome. Early detection and treatment can help
lower the risk of complications.