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What Is HELLP Syndrome? What Are Its Symptoms?

Pregnancy brings about a lot of changes in a woman's body. For some women the whole period of pregnancy may be an absolute breeze. For others, they may have to face many complications which can put them and their baby's life at risk.

In this article, we will be discussing one such complication which happens after the 20 weeks of pregnancy, and rarely postpartum - HELLP syndrome.

What Is HELLP Syndrome?

HELLP syndrome is a series of symptoms that are potentially life-threatening to the mother and the unborn baby. HELLP disorder majorly affects the blood and liver. The majority of the HELLP cases are noticed in the last trimester of the pregnancy. It can cause serious complications for the mother and the baby if not treated at the right time.

What Does HELLP Stand For?

The word HELLP is an acronym for the major conditions noticed during its initial diagnosis-

H- Hemolysis

EL- elevated liver enzymes

LP- low platelet count

These abnormalities together wreak havoc in pregnant women. Hemolysis is the condition where the red blood cells break down faster than usual. This may lead to a rapid drop in red blood cells and can cause anaemia.

When the liver isn't functioning properly, the liver cells leak certain enzymes into the blood. Low platelet count further aggravates the condition and can cause excessive bleeding, which can be fatal for a pregnant woman.

What Are The Symptoms Of HELLP Syndrome?

Just like pregnancy, the symptoms of HELLP differ from mother to mother. However, few common symptoms noticed in patients with HELLP syndrome are-

- Headaches

- Blurry vision

- Nausea

- Swelling on hands, feet and face

- Excess weight gain

- Pain in the upper part of the abdomen.

- Seizures

- Nosebleed

You may notice that most of the symptoms above are just other symptoms of pregnancy, which makes it all the more difficult to diagnose the condition.

How Is The HELLP Syndrome Diagnosed?

As there are no major symptoms exclusive to HELLP syndrome, your doctor may advise you extensive blood and liver tests that will help diagnose the condition accurately. Apart from these, a urine test is also recommended for the presence of protein as that is the after effect of a damaged liver. Women suffering from HELLP are also known to have an abnormally low platelet count.

Although, the research for the condition is still underway, it is said that women suffering from high blood pressure are more prone to develop HELLP syndrome during their third trimester.

What Happens When You Have HELLP Syndrome?

About 1 in every 1000 pregnant women suffer from HELLP syndrome during their pregnancy. Their chances further increase if they are suffering from high blood pressure.

Women with HELLP syndrome often experience a sharp pain in the upper part of their abdomens, which may travel through the lungs and reach the shoulders. This pain is often managed through painkillers, which usually affects the unborn baby.

Because HELLP is a disorder which results in high blood pressure, it directly affects the growth of the foetus.

The most serious complications that arise from the mother suffering from HELLP syndrome are-

1) Premature birth due to placenta abruption- The mother's high blood pressure results in the placenta getting detached from the uterus, which may call for immediate delivery of the baby.

2) Adult respiratory distress syndrome- Another complication of high blood pressure, there can be fluid build up in the lungs of the mother, which can also result in lung failure.

3) Liver failure.

4) Intrauterine growth restrictions- HELLP syndrome can cause the disruptions in the normal growth of the baby inside the womb.

As much as HELLP affects the mother, there are higher chances of infant mortality in the case of a HELLP syndrome. While mothers survive the ordeal with only 1.1 % mortality rate, infants on the other hand have a higher mortality rate of 10%-60%.

How Is HELLP Treated?

Once diagnosed, the treatment of HELLP syndrome is primarily based on many factors like how far along the mother is in the pregnancy. However, doctors recommend an immediate Caesarean if the baby is at a high risk of mortality.

If the baby is below 34 weeks of gestation, the doctors will try to administer corticosteroids in order to necessitate the rapid development of the foetus' lungs and just giving it more chances to survive its premature birth.

After delivery, the mother is put on high medication to manage the blood pressure. There will be a transfusion of blood if the platelet count gets too low. She is also given medications to avoid seizures.

Though the exact cause of HELLP syndrome is unknown, it is said that women with preeclampsia, a condition of high blood pressure, are at a higher risk of developing HELLP syndrome during their pregnancy.

Other factors include high maternity age (above 35), obesity, pre-pregnancy diabetes and liver problems, history of high blood pressure.

The symptoms of HELLP are often mistaken for normal pregnancy symptoms. However, if you find it difficult to manage your blood pressure, any sign that your body is giving cannot be ignored. Timely treatment will cause no issues to you or your baby.

Read more about: foetus symptoms
Story first published: Monday, September 24, 2018, 18:00 [IST]