What Is HELLP Syndrome?

HELLP Syndrome

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HELLP Syndrome is a serious, life-threatening complication of pregnancy that occurs in less than 1 per cent of all pregnancies in the US. Pregnant women who have high blood pressure and develop severe preeclampsia or eclampsia, however, have a higher risk.

Signs (test results) and Symptoms (things that you feel):

  • High blood pressure and protein in your urine are signs of preeclampsia.
  • Seizures are symptoms of eclampsia.
  • Pain in the upper abdomen is a symptom of HELLP syndrome.
  • Nausea and vomiting in the third trimester are symptoms of HELLP syndrome.
  • Hemolysis, Elevated Liver enzymes, and Low Platelets are the signs of HELLP syndrome that give it its name. These signs are detected by a blood test.

What can I do to avoid it?
Routine prenatal care by experienced health care providers (HCPs), good diet, and regular exercise are recommended for all pregnant women. Your HCPs monitor your blood pressure (BP) through the course of your pregnancy. If you begin to develop high blood pressure readings, your HCP will see you more often to check your BP more frequently, monitor your baby’s well-being more closely, and perhaps provide you with medication to lower your BP. It is very important to keep your BP within normal range to protect you and the baby from complications like seizures, early separation of the placenta, and poor growth and development of the baby.

If you develop any of the signs and symptoms listed above, or headaches, changes in your vision, shoulder or chest pain, or bleeding, call your HCP immediately. Trust yourself when something doesn’t feel right, especially if you or other family members have had high blood pressure.

What happens if I develop it?
If you develop high blood pressure, your pregnancy will be considered “high risk.” You will undergo advanced monitoring and blood testing to prevent eclampsia and identify HELLP syndrome. If you develop HELLP syndrome, damage could occur to your placenta, blood cells, kidneys, liver and other organs. The only way to treat HELLP syndrome is to deliver the baby. HELLP syndrome is more dangerous for you and your baby than premature delivery.

What happens to the baby if I develop it?
High blood pressure during pregnancy can be dangerous not only for you but also for your baby. Babies of mothers with hypertension during pregnancy may not grow and develop as fully as babies of women with normal BP. Early delivery may be warranted if the high blood pressure leads to eclampsia or HELLP syndrome. The longer you can carry the baby before it is delivered, the better the health of the baby.

Remember, regular monitoring by your HCPs will provide early recognition of the high blood pressure that could lead to potential pregnancy complications like HELLP syndrome. Therefore, make sure you consistently attend your prenatal visits, even if everything feels great. Some signs of danger you do not feel.

Kristine Shields
Dr. Kristine Shields is an Ob/Gyn Nurse Practitioner with a doctorate in Public Health. She is a women's health advocate dedicated to providing evidence-based information to pregnant and breastfeeding women and their health care providers so they can make informed treatment decisions.

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