Ectopic pregnancy occurs outside the uterus, threatening the mother's life. It can't continue normally. But swift treatment can prevent deadly blood loss.
Pregnancy begins with a fertilized egg. Normally, the fertilized egg attaches to the lining of the uterus. An ectopic pregnancy occurs when a fertilized egg implants and grows outside the main cavity of the uterus.
An ectopic pregnancy most often occurs in a fallopian tube, which carries eggs from the ovaries to the uterus. This type of ectopic pregnancy is called a tubal pregnancy. Sometimes, an ectopic pregnancy occurs in other areas of the body, such as the ovary, abdominal cavity or the lower part of the uterus (cervix), which connects to the vagina.
An ectopic pregnancy can't proceed normally. The fertilized egg can't survive, and the growing tissue may cause life-threatening bleeding, if left untreated.
You may not notice any symptoms at first. However, some women who have an ectopic pregnancy have the usual early signs or symptoms of pregnancy — a missed period, breast tenderness and nausea.
If you take a pregnancy test, the result will be positive. Still, an ectopic pregnancy can't continue as normal.
As the fertilized egg grows in the improper place, signs and symptoms become more noticeable.
Often, the first warning signs of an ectopic pregnancy are light vaginal bleeding and pelvic pain.
If blood leaks from the fallopian tube, you may feel shoulder pain or an urge to have a bowel movement. Your specific symptoms depend on where the blood collects and which nerves are irritated.
If the fertilized egg continues to grow in the fallopian tube, it can cause the tube to rupture. Heavy bleeding inside the abdomen is likely. Symptoms of this life-threatening event include extreme lightheadedness, fainting and shock.
Seek emergency medical help if you have any signs or symptoms of an ectopic pregnancy, including:
A tubal pregnancy — the most common type of ectopic pregnancy — happens when a fertilized egg gets stuck on its way to the uterus, often because the fallopian tube is damaged by inflammation or is misshapen. Hormonal imbalances or abnormal development of the fertilized egg also might play a role.
Some things that make you more likely to have an ectopic pregnancy are:
An ectopic pregnancy can cause your fallopian tube to burst open. Without treatment, the ruptured tube can lead to life-threatening bleeding.
There's no way to prevent an ectopic pregnancy, but here are some ways to decrease your risk:
A pelvic exam can help your doctor identify areas of pain, tenderness, or a mass in the fallopian tube or ovary. However, your doctor can't diagnose an ectopic pregnancy by examining you. You'll need blood tests and an ultrasound.
Your doctor will order the human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG) blood test to confirm that you're pregnant. Levels of this hormone increase during pregnancy. This blood test may be repeated every few days until ultrasound testing can confirm or rule out an ectopic pregnancy — usually about five to six weeks after conception.
A transvaginal ultrasound allows your doctor to see the exact location of your pregnancy. For this test, a wandlike device is placed into your vagina. It uses sound waves to create images of your uterus, ovaries and fallopian tubes, and sends the pictures to a nearby monitor.
Abdominal ultrasound, in which an ultrasound wand is moved over your belly, may be used to confirm your pregnancy or evaluate for internal bleeding.
A complete blood count will be done to check for anemia or other signs of blood loss. If you're diagnosed with an ectopic pregnancy, your doctor may also order tests to check your blood type in case you need a transfusion.
A fertilized egg can't develop normally outside the uterus. To prevent life-threatening complications, the ectopic tissue needs to be removed. Depending on your symptoms and when the ectopic pregnancy is discovered, this may be done using medication, laparoscopic surgery or abdominal surgery.
An early ectopic pregnancy without unstable bleeding is most often treated with a medication called methotrexate, which stops cell growth and dissolves existing cells. The medication is given by injection. It's very important that the diagnosis of ectopic pregnancy is certain before receiving this treatment.
After the injection, your doctor will order another HCG test to determine how well treatment is working, and if you need more medication.
Salpingostomy and salpingectomy are two laparoscopic surgeries used to treat some ectopic pregnancies. In these procedure, a small incision is made in the abdomen, near or in the navel. Next, your doctor uses a thin tube equipped with a camera lens and light (laparoscope) to view the tubal area.
In a salpingostomy, the ectopic pregnancy is removed and the tube left to heal on its own. In a salpingectomy, the ectopic pregnancy and the tube are both removed.
Which procedure you have depends on the amount of bleeding and damage and whether the tube has ruptured. Also a factor is whether your other fallopian tube is normal or shows signs of prior damage.
If the ectopic pregnancy is causing heavy bleeding, you might need emergency surgery. This can be done laparoscopically or through an abdominal incision (laparotomy). In some cases, the fallopian tube can be saved. Typically, however, a ruptured tube must be removed.
Losing a pregnancy is devastating, even if you've only known about it for a short time. Recognize the loss, and give yourself time to grieve. Talk about your feelings and allow yourself to experience them fully.
Rely on your partner, loved ones and friends for support. You might also seek the help of a support group, grief counselor or other mental health provider.
Many women who have an ectopic pregnancy go on to have a future, healthy pregnancy. The female body normally has two fallopian tubes. If one is damaged or removed, an egg may join with a sperm in the other tube and then travel to the uterus.
If both fallopian tubes have been injured or removed, in vitro fertilization (IVF) might still be an option. With this procedure, mature eggs are fertilized in a lab and then implanted into the uterus.
If you've had an ectopic pregnancy, your risk of having another one is increased. If you wish to try to get pregnant again, it's very important to see your doctor regularly. Early blood tests are recommended for all women who've had an ectopic pregnancy. Blood tests and ultrasound testing can alert your doctor if another ectopic pregnancy is developing.
Call your doctor's office if you have light vaginal bleeding or slight abdominal pain. The doctor might recommend an office visit or immediate medical care.
However, emergency medical help is needed if you develop these warning signs or symptoms of an ectopic pregnancy:
Call 911 (or your local emergency number) or go to the hospital if you have the above symptoms.
It can be helpful to jot down your questions for the doctor before your visit. Here are some questions you might want to ask your doctor:
In addition to your prepared questions, don't hesitate to ask questions anytime you don't understand something. Ask a loved one or friend to come with you, if possible. Sometimes it can be difficult to remember all of the information provided, especially in an emergency situation.
If you don't require emergency treatment and haven't yet been diagnosed with an ectopic pregnancy, your doctor will talk to you about medical history and symptoms. You'll be asked many questions about your menstrual cycle, fertility and overall health.