What is HELLP Syndrome?

I had HELLP syndrome when I was pregnant. What exactly is it?


Peg Plumbo CNM

Peg Plumbo has been a certified nurse-midwife (CNM) since 1976. She has assisted at over 1,000 births and currently teaches in the... Read more

HELLP syndrome is characterized by liver compromise during or after a pregnancy, complicated by hypertension and/or preeclampsia. The letters stand for:
Hemolytic anemia (when red blood cells break down)
Elevated Liver transminases (sign of liver problems)
Low Platelet count (causing problems in blood clotting).

This condition usually appears in the third trimester and most commonly in first-time pregnancies, but it can begin as early as 20 weeks and recur in subsequent pregnancies. A simple explanation of the disease is that it is a very severe form of preeclampsia. About 15 percent (in one study) of women with preeclampsia go on to develop HELLP.

Signs of preeclampsia may include: swelling in hands, feet and face; protein found in the urine; higher than normal blood pressure; visual changes like spots; flashes of light; blurring; headache; and pain in the area above the stomach. Seizures (eclampsia) may result. HELLP syndrome is diagnosed by blood tests for clotting factors and liver function. It is not just a new name for preeclampsia, but has its own set of parameters.

This condition can be mild -- requiring only close observation and rest -- or it can be life-threatening to mother and baby. In the severe cases, micro blood clots form in maternal vessels and decreased clotting factors can lead to hemorrhage.

The cause of this whole complex syndrome of preeclampsia and HELLP has not been identified. It tends to be decreasing in frequency across the U.S., which may indicate that better client education, better screening and prenatal care and improved nutrition have some impact.

You may not have this condition with a subsequent pregnancy, but if you do, it would be a good idea to see a perinatologist or someone who specializes in hypertensive diseases of pregnancy.

Write back if you want more detailed information. A medical library or bookstore would have many good references on complications of pregnancy also.

Good luck.

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