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An Expectant Mother’s Guide to Preeclampsia and HELLP

Pregnancy brings a multitude of changes to your body — swelling, weight gain and discomfort to name a few. While most changes are signs of a normal pregnancy, some may be signs of a complication. Medical News Today declares preeclampsia the most common complication to occur in pregnancies, and roughly 10 to 20 percent of women with preeclampsia develop HELLP. Understanding what these complications are and how to detect them can help keep you and your baby safe. 

What is Preeclampsia?

Preeclampsia is a condition that is diagnosed by the elevation of an expectant mother’s blood pressure commonly after the 20th week of pregnancy. This condition puts the mother at risk of brain injury, impaired kidney and liver function, and blood clotting problems. 

Preeclampsia affects the blood flow to the placenta. In severe forms or left untreated, it can lead to premature birth or maternal and fetal death. This condition can occur at any time throughout the pregnancy, delivery and up to six weeks post-partum. It is most frequent in the final trimester and can develop gradually or quite suddenly. 

What is HELLP syndrome?

HELLP is a syndrome that typically can occur during the third trimester of pregnancy. HELLP stands for hemolysis (H), elevated liver enzymes (EL) and low platelet counts (LP). This syndrome impacts the breakdown of red blood cells, liver function and blood clotting. 

If undiagnosed or untreated, HELLP can lead to complications for both mothers and babies. These can include placental abruption, fluid buildup in the lungs, lung failure, acute renal failure and others. While the cause of HELLP syndrome is still unknown, it is more common in women who have preeclampsia or pregnancy-induced hypertension. 

What are the symptoms of Preeclampsia and HELLP syndrome?

Signs of preeclampsia include severe headaches, vision changes, decreased urine output, excess protein in your urine or impaired liver function. 

Signs of HELLP include headaches, upper right abdominal pain or tenderness, fatigue or general discomfort, and progressive vomiting.

Some symptoms of both preeclampsia and HELLP appear as normal pregnancy symptoms such as high blood pressure, sudden swelling or weight gain. Inform your doctor if you have any concerns about these symptoms. It can be difficult to tell if some symptoms are from normal pregnancy or preeclampsia or HELLP, so don’t hesitate to ask your doctor at your prenatal visits. 

How are Preeclampsia and HELLP syndrome treated?

With both conditions, the treatment course can differ based on the gestation of the pregnancy and other health conditions. Healthcare providers monitor the mother and baby closely to watch the progression of the conditions and evaluate their overall health. 

For preeclampsia, if the pregnancy is less than 37 weeks, healthcare providers try to provide more time. If the pregnancy is 37 weeks or later, most will deliver the baby. In both cases, healthcare providers aim to follow a course of treatment that has the greatest survival chance for both mother and baby.

Becoming a parent inevitably has challenges and scary moments, but your healthcare providers are here to help. If you are experiencing any symptoms or concerns about the health of you and your baby, ask your doctor.

A pregnant woman touching her stomach