We live in a modern world, where it has never been safer for women to get pregnant and enjoy the wonders of childbirth.
But, although we don’t want to be fear-mongers, we think that all expectant mums should know about HELLP.
If you’re pregnant, you’re planning on falling pregnant, or you’ve recently had a baby, reading this article might save your life.
HELLP is an obstetric complication that, if left undiagnosed, can be life-threatening. Awareness of the condition is the first step in getting a handle on it, so please read on.
What Is HELLP?
HELLP syndrome is an obstetric complication that is often considered a variety of, or complication of, pre-eclampsia.
In recent years, it has began to stand on its own, as doctors realise that the syndrome needs to be tackled individually. However, there are similarities between HELLP and pre-eclampsia. Both conditions usually occur during the later part of pregnancy, or in some cases, it can occur in the second trimester or after birth. The name HELLP comes from an abbreviation of the syndrome’s main features: Haemolysis, Elevated Liver enzymes, Low Platelet count.
What do those mean?
Let’s look more in-depth about what each part of HELLP actually means, and what it can do to the body.
This is the breakdown of red blood cells earlier than they should be breaking down. In turn, this leads to anaemia, which is when there isn’t enough oxygen in the blood to supply the body.
Elevated Liver enzymes
If you have elevated liver enzymes, it’s likely that your liver isn’t functioning as it should. For example, if liver cells are injured or inflamed, they can leak chemicals, like enzymes, into the blood.
Low Platelet count
The platelet is the part of the blood that makes it clot, so when this count is low, there’s a high risk of excessive bleeding.
When and why does HELLP happen?
As we mentioned before, HELLP tends to happen during the last trimester of pregnancy, most often, before the 37th week. However, around one-third of HELLP cases happen within a week of the baby being born, and sometimes, it’s been known to occur in the second trimester also.
Nobody is really sure what the cause of HELLP is, but it’s a concern because it can be life-threatening to both the baby and the mother. Some experts think that the syndrome is related to pre-eclampsia, but certain factors might indicate whether you develop it.
According to most statistics, HELLP affects one to two of every 1,000 women. Risk factors for the condition are varied, as there is not one cause. However, if you have pre-eclampsia, are over 25, have given birth before, are obese, have a poor diet, don’t do a lot of exercises, or have diabetes, your risk is considered to be higher.
What are the symptoms?
It sounds scary, but the symptoms of HELLP are actually very similar to the flu, and indeed, women who have HELLP often don’t seem that sick at all. Symptoms of the condition are headaches, nausea or vomiting, indigestion and pains after meals, tenderness in the chest or abdomen (caused by liver distention), shoulder pain or pain from deep breaths, bleeding, vision changes and swelling.
If you experience one or more of these symptoms, and you’re also heavily pregnant, it’s time to see a doctor. They, in turn, will do their own tests, including looking for high blood pressure and protein in the urine.
What happens after diagnosis?
In most cases, the treatment for HELLP is the immediate delivery of the baby. There may also be a need for a transfusion depending on individual need, for example, maybe red cells, plasma or platelets. To help improve chances for both baby and mother in some cases, doctors may also prescribe corticosteroids.
We aren’t trying to be unrealistic here. HELLP is a serious condition, and the fatality rate is thought to be as high as 25%. When HELLP does lead to the death of the mother, it’s usually because they have a liver rupture or a stroke. Both of these things can be avoided if HELLP is caught in time.
Can it be prevented?
Sadly, there currently isn’t any way to prevent HELLP, but there are some things to do that can improve your chances of early diagnosis and better outcomes. Doctors recommend being in good shape before getting pregnant, having regular prenatal visits during pregnancy and informing doctors of any history of high-risk pregnancies, particularly those that involved HELLP or pre-eclampsia.
It’s also very important to know the warning signs and tell your doctor straight away, even if that means trusting that something just doesn’t feel right.
As medicine improves, so too does our understanding of conditions like HELLP. One day, we may be able to easily catch the condition before it begins, but until then, your awareness and understanding could save your life, or the life of another mother.
If you become concerned about any symptoms, please seek immediate medical attention. We have some hotlines and suggested websites for further information and advice.
SAHM takes no responsibility for any illness, injury or death caused by misuse of this information. All information provided is correct at time of publication.