HELLP syndrome is a serious pregnancy condition with potentially life-threatening effects. It is rare and can occur during pregnancy or after delivery.
Our team of maternal and fetal specialists leads the region in HELLP syndrome experience. They can provide customized care plans and rapid responses to improve patient outcomes.
What is HELLP syndrome?
The acronym HELLP stands for:
- H: hemolysis, which is when your red blood cells are destroyed faster than they can be made
- EL: elevated liver enzymes, which is a sign of inflammation or damage to the cells of the liver
- LP: low platelet count, which can prevent your blood from clotting properly
Complete HELLP syndrome is when all 3 elements are present.
It is often referred to as a severe form of preeclampsia or a complication of preeclampsia. The first sign of preeclampsia is usually high blood pressure. In severe cases, preeclampsia can lead to low platelets, abnormal kidney or liver function, seizure, stroke and HELLP syndrome. It usually develops after 20 weeks of pregnancy and is most common in the third trimester.
However, you may develop HELLP syndrome without any preeclampsia symptoms, like high blood pressure or protein in your urine.
Types of HELLP syndrome
There are 3 classes of HELLP syndrome. Class 1 is the most severe, while class 3 is most mild. The classes are determined by the values of your hemolysis, liver enzymes and platelet count.
HELLP syndrome symptoms and risks
You may experience 1 or more of the following symptoms with HELLP syndrome.
- Abdominal, chest or shoulder pain
- Nausea, vomiting or indigestion after eating
- Headache that won’t go away with medication
- Changes in vision: blurriness, flashes of light, dark spots
- Difficulty breathing
You could be at risk for HELLP syndrome if you’ve been diagnosed with preeclampsia or eclampsia, have hypertension, have had HELLP syndrome before or have an immediate family member who had HELLP syndrome.
HELLP syndrome diagnosis and screening
Your midwife, OB-GYN, family medicine doctor or other specialty provider will assess you for high blood pressure and protein in your urine. Additionally, your blood will be drawn to look for:
- Increased liver enzymes
- Decreased platelets
To diagnose HELLP syndrome, your pregnancy care team may refer you to a perinatologist, also referred to as a maternal-fetal medicine specialist.
HELLP syndrome treatment
If HELLP syndrome occurs during pregnancy, treatment is delivering the baby. This may include an induction and/or Cesarean section. Delivery is necessary in these cases because the syndrome began due to an adverse effect in the placenta.
Before delivery, you may get corticosteroids to improve baby’s lung development and slow the progression of HELLP syndrome.
You may also get a transfusion of red blood cells, platelets or plasma – depending on your symptoms.
If you’ve had HELLP syndrome in a previous pregnancy, or have other high-risk factors, you may have your care managed by our maternal-fetal medicine specialists. They can recommend treatments to reduce the risk of HELLP syndrome during pregnancy, like low-dose aspirin.
Why choose us for HELLP syndrome
Our team of board-certified, fellowship-trained physicians provides the most up-to-date, evidence-based care at one of the nation’s best hospitals.
We have the largest maternal-fetal medicine team in the state of Kansas, giving you access to more than 100 years of combined physician experience. We also have advanced diagnostic equipment and the subspecialized support that’s only available at an academic medical center. Meanwhile, we bring the expertise of academic medicine to you through community-based care. We offer 6 locations in the greater Kansas City area:
- Kansas City, Kansas
- Overland Park
- St. Joseph
In addition, our team offers customized care plans to improve patient outcomes – including telehealth.
Your HELLP syndrome care team
Our physicians in obstetrics and gynecology work with our maternal-fetal medicine program in every pregnancy – assessing risk, reviewing ultrasounds, genetic counseling and more. If an issue arises, your care will move from general OB-GYN to the high-risk clinic where maternal-fetal specialists will follow you more closely. This shared model of care means you have an experienced team, familiar with you and your pregnancy, with you all the way through delivery.
Because HELLP syndrome often leads to early delivery, you’ll want to know that we have a Level 3 NICU with physicians on-call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. And as you transition out of the NICU, we offer the nation's first neonatal medical home and streamline care to our pediatric or family medicine primary care team.
Finally, experiencing HELLP syndrome can put you through a lot of mental stress. You could also have postpartum depression. Experts in our peripartum care program can help.
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Doctors at The University of Kansas Health System are care providers and researchers at the forefront of new medical discoveries. From primary care to complex conditions, we offer hundreds of specialists.