HELLP Syndrome

What is HELLP Syndrome?

This condition occurs in women who are pregnant and it consists of hemolysis, elevated enzymes in the liver and a platelet count that is low. Hemolysis occurs when a person’s red blood cells break down too fast and this can ultimately cause anemia.

When the liver enzymes are too high, this is an indication of a malfunctioning liver. A low platelet count prevents the blood from clotting and causes a person to bleed profusely. The exact cause of HELLP (hemolysis, elevated liver enzymes, low platelet count) syndrome is not fully known, but pregnant women who have been diagnosed with preeclampsia, which is a condition that causes swelling and high blood pressure, are at a higher risk of getting HELLP syndrome. Other risk factors include previous pregnancies, diabetes, not eating nutritious meals and being older than 30 years of age.

What are the Symptoms of HELLP Syndrome?

Many women who have symptoms of HELLP Syndrome often think they have the flu because the symptoms are very similar.

Symptoms include

Feeling unusually tired, headache, nauseated stomach, stomach cramping and vomiting. Additional symptoms that occur with this syndrome are blurred vision, indigestion, pain when taking deep breaths, pains in the shoulder area or upper back pain below the right shoulder blade and a swollen face or hands. HELLP syndrome comes as a severe form of preeclampsia and therefore can be life-threatening due to high blood pressure and liver damage.

HELLP Syndrome Causes

HELLP is a complication or severe version of preeclampsia, which is extremely high blood pressure in expectant mothers. Doctors aren’t entirely sure what causes preeclampsia — and, by extension, HELLP — but there are some risk factors that make it more likely. This includes things like a history of preeclampsia, it being the first pregnancy, advanced maternal age and other factors.

HELLP can also develop suddenly, even before high blood pressure is detected, and can rapidly become life-threatening to both mother and baby. It’s even more dangerous than standard preeclampsia because it signals that multiple organs are damaged and not functioning properly. Coupled with the high blood pressure of preeclampsia, HELLP also points to liver problems.

This syndrome still leaves doctors with a lot of unanswered questions. It is more common in women with preeclampsia, but can also develop without it. It typically occurs during the third trimester, but can also occur within the first 48 hours after birth. One thing all doctors agree on, though, is that it is a serious complication and shouldn’t be treated lightly.

How is HELLP Syndrome Treated?

Since HELLP syndrome occurs in the last trimester of pregnancy, the recommended treatment option is to give birth to the baby as quickly as possible. The doctor may choose to induce a woman’s labor or a cesarean section may be necessary. If the baby is not delivered right away, the mother and unborn baby can develop life-threatening complications.

Additionally, before giving birth, the mother may receive corticosteroids to help in the development of the unborn baby’s lungs, high blood pressure medications, and infusions of magnesium sulfate to avert seizures. After giving birth to the child, the symptoms of HELLP syndrome usually disappear.

HELLP Syndrome Prevention

As with the causes, there are various things that might help prevent HELLP syndrome, but no magical cure to keep it from happening. Many of the things that patients can do to prevent HELLP are similar to what they should do to prevent preeclampsia.

These include:

  • Exercising moderately throughout pregnancy
  • Eating a healthy, balanced diet and taking recommended vitamins and supplements
  • Monitoring weight gain
  • Monitoring blood pressure regularly
  • Keeping an eye on fluid retention and swelling (edema)
  • Knowing common symptoms and reporting them to your doctor

Because doctors don’t know exactly what triggers HELLP syndrome, the ways to prevent it are somewhat vague. Maintaining a healthy pregnancy, reporting any strange symptoms to your doctor and trusting your instinct if something seems wrong are all good ways to keep both mother and baby healthy.

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Last Reviewed:
October 06, 2016
Last Updated:
January 10, 2018