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HELLP syndrome

Definition

HELLP syndrome is a group of symptoms that occur in pregnant women who have:

Causes, incidence, and risk factors

The cause of HELLP syndrome has not been found.

HELLP syndrome occurs in about 1 to 2 out of 1,000 pregnancies, and in 10-20% of pregnant women with severe preeclampsia or eclampsia.

Most often HELLP develops before the pregnancy is 37 weeks along. Sometimes it develops in the week after the baby is born.

Many women have high blood pressure and are diagnosed with preeclampsia before they develop HELLP syndrome. In some cases, HELLP symptoms are the first warning of preeclampsia and the condition can be misdiagnosed as:

Symptoms

  • Fatigue or feeling unwell
  • Fluid retention and excess weight gain
  • Headache
  • Nausea and vomiting that continues to get worse
  • Pain in the upper right part of the abdomen
  • Blurry vision
  • Nosebleed or other bleeding that won't stop easily (rare)
  • Seizures or convulsions (rare)

Signs and tests

During a physical examination, the doctor may discover:

Liver function tests (liver enzymes) may be high. Platelet counts may be low. A CT scan may show bleeding into the liver.

Tests of the baby's health will be done. Tests include fetal non-stress test, ultrasound, among others.

Treatment

The main treatment is to deliver the baby as soon as possible, even if the baby is premature. Problems with the liver and other complications of HELLP syndrome can quickly get worse and be harmful to both the mother and child.

Your doctor may induce labor by giving you drugs to start labor, or may perform a C-section.

You may also receive:

  • A blood transfusion if bleeding problems become severe
  • Corticosteroid medications to help the baby's lungs develop faster
  • Medications to treat high blood pressure

Expectations (prognosis)

When the condition is not treated early, up to 1 of 4 women develop serious complications. Without treatment, a small number of women die.

The death rate among babies born to mothers with HELLP syndrome depends on birth weight and the development of the baby's organs, especially the lungs. Many babies are born prematurely (born before 37 weeks of pregnancy).

HELLP syndrome may return in up to 1 out of 4 future pregnancies.

Complications

There can be complications before and after the baby is delivered, including:

After the baby is born and HELLP syndrome has time to improve, most of these complications will go away.

Calling your health care provider

If symptoms of HELLP syndrome occur during pregnancy:

  • See your obstetrician right away
  • Call the local emergency number (such as 911)
  • Get to the hospital emergency room or labor and delivery unit 

There is no known way to prevent HELLP syndrome. This is why it is important for all pregnant women to start prenatal care early and continue it through the pregnancy. This allows the health care provider to find and treat conditions such as HELLP syndrome early.

References

Sibai BM. Hypertension. In: Gabbe SG, Niebyl JR, Simpson JL, eds. Obstetrics - Normal and Problem Pregnancies. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2012:chap 35.

Wakim-Fleming J. Liver disease in pregnancy. In: Carey WD, ed. Cleveland Clinic: Current Clinical Medicine 2010. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2010:section 6.


Review Date: 11/8/2012
Reviewed By: Susan Storck, MD, FACOG, Chief, Eastside Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Group Health Cooperative of Puget Sound, Bellevue, Washington; Clinical Teaching Faculty, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc., Editorial Team: David Zieve, MD, MHA, David R. Eltz, Stephanie Slon, and Nissi Wang.
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