HELLP Syndrome

What is HELLP Syndrome?

HELLP Syndrome usually occurs during the third trimester, but around a third of cases occur after the baby is born, rarely it can occur before 21 weeks of pregnancy; it is a rare liver and blood clotting disorder that affects around 1 in 125 women during pregnancy or after giving birth. It is a serious and potentially life threatening condition so please contact your care provider if you exhibit the signs or symptoms.

What is HELLP Syndrome?

HELLP stands for:

H – haemolysis (the red blood cells break down)

EL – elevated liver enzymes (proteins) (a high number of enzymes in the liver is a sign of liver damage)

LP – low platelet count (platelets help the blood to clot)

Symptoms of HELLP Syndrome

The symptoms of HELLP Syndrome are very similar to the symptoms observed with pre-eclampsia (the two conditions are often related). You may experience one or more of these symptoms:

  • Headache
  • Nausea/vomiting/indigestion with pain after eating
  • Abdominal or chest tenderness and/or upper right side pain (from liver distention)
  • Shoulder pain
  • Pain when breathing deeply
  • Bleeding
  • Changes in vision
  • Swelling/weight gain

Your midwife or doctor will check for the following signs during your antenatal appointments:

  • High blood pressure
  • Protein in the urine

The most common reason for HELLP becoming fatal is liver rupture or stroke (cerebral oedema or cerebral haemorrhage), which can usually be prevented when caught in time.

How HELLP Syndrome affects babies

If a baby weighs at least two pounds at birth, they have the same survival rate and health outcome of non-HELLP babies of the same size. Unfortunately, the outcome for babies weighing less than two pounds at birth is not as good; these babies may need longer hospital stays and will have a higher chance of needing ventilator care because their lungs did not have enough chance to develop in the womb. Around 1 in 10 babies born to women with HELLP will pass away and this is often link to their prematurity.

Treatment of HELLP Syndrome

With treatment, the mortality rate of women with HELLP Syndrome is around 1 in 100, although complications can occur in about 1 in 4 women. The only way to treat the condition is for the baby to be born as soon as possible. Many women suffering from HELLP syndrome will also require a transfusion of some form of blood product (red cells, platelets or plasma).

What can I do to prevent HELLP Syndrome?

Unfortunately, there’s currently no way to prevent this illness. Things that could help to make sure it’s diagnosed early are:

  • Regular antenatal check-ups during pregnancy
  • Inform your midwife about any previous high-risk pregnancies or family history of HELLP Syndrome, pre-eclampsia, or other hypertensive disorders
  • Understand the warning signs and talk to your midwife or Doctor immediately
  • Trust yourself when “something just doesn’t feel right”.

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