One of the most devastating and life threatening things that can happen in a pregnancy is HELLP syndrome. The letters are an acronym for: H- hemolysis or breakdown of red blood cells, EL, elevated liver enzymes (liver working overtime), LP, low platelet count ( platelets help the blood clot.).
HELLP syndrome can occur with preeclampsia or on its own.
Eclampsia comes from the Greek word eklampsis, which means sudden development. Preeclampsia is a condition that can lead to eclampsia. Eclampsia can lead to death. The only cure for eclampsia is the delivery of the baby.
Eclampsia is associated with the placenta not functioning optimally. There is research that links poor nutrition or high body fat as possible causes. However poor blood flow to the uterus, a history of high blood pressure, a family history of eclampsia, diabetes, kidney disease, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, carrying more than one baby, another family member who had eclampsia are all associated with being high risk for developing preeclampsia.
Like the Greek word sudden development implies, it can happen very quickly. Any sudden swelling in the face, hands and eyes, sudden weight gain, abdominal pain especially in the upper right side, severe headache, low output of urine, and blurry vision is a reason to come straight to a hospital.
HELLP syndrome is associated with preeclampsia but can occur on its own.
The symptoms of HELLP syndrome are a severe headache, nausea that gets worse, upper right abdominal pain, and fatigue. Any woman presenting with these symptoms in her third trimester should seek medical help promptly.
As the acronym implies the cascading of destruction of red blood cells, malfunctioning of the liver, and low platelets explains the symptoms. As blood pressure rises the kidneys cannot filter out fluids hence the swelling and weight gain. Low urine output would be because the kidneys are not functioning effectively. The pain in the upper right side is because the liver is overwhelmed by the accumulating red blood cells. It can become so overwhelmed it can actually develop lacerations.
At the temple of Apollo at Delphi there is an inscription that translates to “Know thyself.” The phrase is followed by another quote which translates to “Nothing to excess.”
Both of those bits of wisdom apply to our knowledge of our bodies. Sudden physical changes and especially if they are dramatic, need to be assessed and addressed. This is true for everyone but especially true for a pregnant woman.
HELLP syndrome isn’t preventable because the exact cause isn’t known. However early treatment can lower the risk of complications and potentially save lives.
Katie Powers, R.N., is a board-certified lactation consultant and perinatal educator at Manatee Memorial Hospital’s Family BirthPlace. Her column appears every other week in Healthy Living. Contact her at email@example.com.