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Jessica Anderson - Director of Midwifery Services with CU College of Nursing clinics

HELLP syndrome in pregnancy – what to look for

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Written by Guest Contributor on September 26, 2019

Most pregnancies are 40 weeks of weight gain, mood swings, body changes, and fatigue. In rare cases, expectant mothers develop a potentially fatal complication of high blood pressure called HELLP syndrome. It happens in about 1 to 2 of 1,000 pregnancies. Often emerging during the later stages of pregnancy, the condition can also occur shortly after delivery.

What is HELLP Syndrome?

Affecting the blood, liver and blood pressure, HELLP compromises not only the mother’s organs but also the ability of her blood to clot at the very time emergency surgery might be required to safely deliver the child and save the mother. HELLP causes red cells in the blood to break down and is thought to be a type of severe preeclampsia, but it might be an entity of its own.

HELLP is an emergency that needs quick treatment. The acronym stands for things that happen when you have the condition, including hemolysis (the breakdown of red blood cells), elevated liver enzymes and low platelet count. If left untreated, the condition can hurt both mother and baby and can cause major complications including seizures, stroke, liver rupture or placental abruption.



Mom and baby

Doctors do not know what causes it. However, your chance of developing it is higher if you have had it before. Most women who get it have high blood pressure first. However, you can get HELLP with normal blood pressure. Experts think that your odds may be higher if you are older than 25, are Caucasian, and have given birth two or more times before.

Symptoms usually develop quickly and include:

  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Headache
  • Blurred or spotted vision
  • Pain on the right-hand side of the torso
  • Chest pain
  • Belly pain
  • Swelling, especially in the face and hands


If you have any of these symptoms, contact your midwife or OB/GYN. A physical exam and tests will be conducted to determine a diagnosis. Treatment usually requires delivery of the baby, even if the baby is premature.


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