Understanding HELLP Syndrome

Reviewed by James Brann, MD
HELLP syndrome refers to a serious condition during pregnancy, which leads to pain in the upper part of your belly. Usually, this occurs during the third trimester. It can also happen earlier in pregnancy, or even one to two days after your baby is delivered.
For some women dealing with HELLP, they’ve had another medical problem during pregnancy called preeclampsia. In this case, there’s too much protein in a woman’s urine and she develops high blood pressure.

Symptoms of HELLP syndrome

  • Vomiting or nausea
  • Feeling sick
  • Upper belly pain
  • Headache

HELLP syndrome may be dangerous for you and your baby in certain situations. It can hurt your placenta. This is the organ responsible for bringing oxygen and nutrients to your baby, and taking away waste. HELLP syndrome may cause your placenta to pull away from your uterus before delivery. This is dangerous because your baby won’t be able to get all the necessary oxygen and nutrients. This can also lead to dangerously heavy bleeding.

With HELLP, it’s likely you’ll deliver your baby early. Babies who are born early, often have brain, eye, lung and other health problems. It also makes it more likely your child will be small in size.

Testing for HELLP syndrome

Your doctor can test you for HELLP because it causes changes in your blood. They’ll do a series of blood tests, or possibly even some other tests, too.

You’ll want to see your doctor right away, though, if you’re pregnant and you experience belly pain, mostly in your upper belly. Also, be concerned if you’re having belly pain, as well as vomiting and nausea.

Treating HELLP syndrome

The only way to cure HELLP syndrome is to deliver your child. To treat it, doctors usually just give a woman medicine to make her start labor, even if the child will be early. In some situations, doctors will want to use surgery, or a C-section. It is riskier to have HELLP than for a baby to be born too early.
In some cases, a doctor may want to give a woman steroids for a couple of days before delivery. This type of medicine helps to speed up a baby’s lung growth, making it easier for your baby to breathe after delivery. Keep in mind these aren’t the same types of steroids that athletes build muscle with.

Other treatments could include medicine that helps prevent seizures and medicines to help control high blood pressure.

Future pregnancies

If you had HELLP syndrome in a prior pregnancy, you could get it again. You’ll also have an increased chance of preeclampsia.

Before you do get pregnant, make sure you see your doctor. You’ll want to talk to a medical professional about preeclampsia, HELLP syndrome and any other health-related conditions that could affect a future pregnancy.

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