Truths about an ectopic pregnancy

July 07, 2022 | by Jill Moran, MD
Categories: Healthy Driven Moms

About 1 out of 50 pregnancies happen outside of the uterus. Called an ectopic pregnancy, it means a fertilized egg attaches itself in a place other than inside the uterus, where it needs to be to grow properly.

Almost all ectopic pregnancies occur in a fallopian tube, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), also known as a tubal pregnancy. But the fallopian tubes are not designed to hold a growing embryo and the fertilized egg cannot develop properly there.

How can you tell if you are experiencing an ectopic pregnancy? At first, an ectopic pregnancy may feel like a typical pregnancy. Aside from a missed menstrual period, you may have tender breasts, an upset stomach or nausea.

You may also notice some other symptoms, such as abnormal vaginal bleeding, low back pain, rectal pressure, or pain or cramping on one side of your pelvis. In extreme cases, as the fertilized egg continues to grow, it can cause the fallopian tube to burst, or rupture. A ruptured fallopian tube can cause life-threatening internal bleeding.

More serious symptoms of an ectopic pregnancy include:

  • Sudden, severe or stabbing pain in the abdomen or pelvis (may come and go in sharp waves)
  • Shoulder or neck pain
  • Weakness, dizziness or fainting

If you have any abnormal bleeding or pelvic pain that lasts for more than a few minutes, you should let your OB-GYN know right away. If you have sudden, severe pain, shoulder pain, or weakness, you should go to the emergency room.

What can you do to prevent an ectopic pregnancy? Unfortunately, about one half of all women who have an ectopic pregnancy have no known risk factors. And, some risk factors you can’t control.

For instance, once you have had an ectopic pregnancy, you are at higher risk of having another one. Your risk also increases if you are older than age 35 or had prior pelvic or fallopian tube surgery, endometriosis, pelvic inflammatory disease or a history of infertility. If you got pregnant despite having an intrauterine device (IUD) in place or after a tubal ligation, your risk of an ectopic pregnancy increases as well.

There are a few things you can do to help reduce your risk:

  • Don’t smoke. Cigarette smoking increases the risk of ectopic pregnancy.
  • Practice safe sex and limit your number of sexual partners. Certain sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), such as gonorrhea or chlamydia, increase the risk.
  • Visit your doctor for regular gynecological exams and STD screenings.

How is an ectopic pregnancy treated? An ectopic pregnancy always requires treatment, and an untreated ectopic pregnancy can be a medical emergency. Fortunately, most ectopic pregnancies that are detected early can be treated successfully.

If the pregnancy hasn’t ruptured the fallopian tube, a medication called methotrexate may be given via injection, which allows the body to absorb the pregnancy tissue and may save the fallopian tube. You will need careful follow-up over time until the pregnancy hormone, human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG), is no longer found in your blood.

If the fallopian tube has ruptured, emergency surgery is needed, as a rupture can cause major internal bleeding. Sometimes surgery is needed even if the tube hasn’t ruptured, to remove the embryo and repair any internal damage. Part or all of the tube may need to be removed.

What’s the outlook? A positive pregnancy test can bring hopes and plans for the future, and it can be very traumatic to realize your pregnancy is an ectopic one. But an ectopic pregnancy is not safe for the mother, and the embryo won’t be able to develop to term. Know that many women who have had an ectopic pregnancy go on to have a healthy pregnancy and baby the next time around.

If you know you’re pregnant and you have any of the above symptoms or concerns, contact your doctor or seek immediate treatment.

If you recently experienced an ectopic pregnancy, give yourself time to work through your feelings and grieve. Pregnancy loss, no matter how early, can be devastating. Families can receive support through SHARE, a support group for parents who have experienced ectopic pregnancy, miscarriage, stillbirth or early infant death. For more information about SHARE, call 630-527-3263.

Get support to cope with the loss of a child.

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