Photo: Getty Images
Often misdiagnosed at first, HELLP syndrome occurs in one to two out of every 1,000 pregnancies and can lead to serious complications if not treated early. The acronym HELLP stands for Hemolysis, Elevated Liver enzymes and Low Platelet count.
While some researchers believe HELLP syndrome is a variant of preeclampsia, it can also occur independent of preeclampsia. The cause of HELLP syndrome remains unknown.
Many women exhibit symptoms that lead to diagnosis of HELLP syndrome:
- Excess weight gain
- Fluid retention
- Nausea later in pregnancy
- Pain or tenderness in the upper right side of the abdomen
- High blood pressure
- Swelling, particularly in the fact or hands
- Blurry vision
Of course, some of these symptoms are normal for any pregnant woman during the third trimester. Blood tests can help determine if symptoms are a result of HELLP syndrome. However, not all women are symptomatic, and the disease can present without any forewarning.
When Susan Shay’s waters began to leak a week and a half before her due date, she had no idea she was in labor. The San Francisco mom had planned to labor at home for as long as possible, but because of the leakage she went to the hospital. Doctors did blood tests immediately and found a low platelet count and high liver enzymes.
“My platelet count was incredibly low,” said Shay, “the lowest they told me they’d ever seen at the hospital, and my liver enzymes were the highest they’d ever seen.”
While at first the doctors believed Shay might have preeclampsia, the numbers did not improve after several hours, and it became clear that this was HELLP syndrome.
HELLP generally develops in the third trimester, usually before the 37th week of pregnancy, although it can also present soon after childbirth. Many women have high blood pressure before developing HELLP syndrome. This was not the case for Shay. “I actually have low blood pressure,” she stressed. “I had no symptoms at all. I was 38.5 weeks pregnant.