HELLP Syndrome – What Does It Mean?

woman talking to doctor

If you’re pregnant, you may have heard of complications that involve high blood pressure and can lead to preeclampsia. But it has only been recently that people have been talking about HELLP syndrome, a more serious variant of preeclampsia. It sounds frightening, and it can in fact be an extremely dangerous complication for mother and baby. What exactly is HELLP syndrome, and how can you prevent it?

History of HELLP

HELLP syndrome was first identified and named in 1982. HELLP is an acronym that stands for hemolysis (the breaking down of red blood cells), elevated liver enzymes, and low platelet count. HELLP syndrome is a dramatic disorder of the blood and liver and can lead to a potentially fatal liver rupture or stroke if left untreated. The only cure for HELLP syndrome is to deliver the baby immediately no matter how far along the mother is in her pregnancy.

pregnant woman being checked out by doctor

Knowing how frightening HELLP can be, most expectant moms want to know who is likely to get it and how it can be prevented. You may be at risk for HELLP if you have blood pressure problems during pregnancy, and the risk is much higher if you develop preeclampsia (characterized by high blood pressure, protein in your urine, and swelling). HELLP typically develops during the third trimester of pregnancy, although it may appear earlier or even in the immediate post-partum period. Symptoms of HELLP include headache, nausea, and tenderness in your stomach and liver (in the upper right quadrant of your belly area). HELLP can be especially dangerous because it can develop before symptoms of preeclampsia appear. That’s why you should be monitored closely if you have high blood pressure or preeclampsia, and you should see a doctor immediately if you have any of the symptoms of HELLP syndrome.

The good news is that HELLP syndrome only occurs in about half of a percent of pregnant women, or about one in 150. Many cases are identified and treated immediately, so the worst-case scenario is a rarity. Depending on when the baby needs to be delivered, he or she will most likely spend at least some time in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Studies show that HELLP babies who weigh at least two pounds will spend roughly the same amount of time in the NICU as other premature babies of the same weight, and will not experience long-term complications.

pregnant woman being seen by doctor

Prevention and Reducing Chances of HELLP

There’s no sure way to prevent preeclampsia or HELLP syndrome, but you can greatly reduce your chances if you stay healthy and seek regular prenatal care. Before your pregnancy, you should eat a healthy preconception diet, start taking your prenatal vitamins, and get your body close to the right weight for your size. In the early stages of your pregnancy, you should eat carefully, exercise regularly with your doctor’s approval, and continue taking your prenatal vitamins. If you start noticing any strange symptoms, such as headache, dizziness, nausea, or stomach pain, you should take those symptoms seriously and contact your doctor right away.

Of course, for many nervous moms-to-be – especially first-time moms – learning about HELLP syndrome can be scary. But remember that becoming informed is one of the best things you can do for yourself while you are pregnant. If you are one of the rare few who comes down with this syndrome, you should know how to recognize the symptoms and call your doctor right away. When you are aware and responsive to any potential problems, you and your doctor will most likely be able to address them in time to avoid any serious complications.