An Ectopic Pregnancy is a Difficult Situation - Learn More
An ectopic pregnancy, also commonly referred to as a tubal pregnancy, is a rare pregnancy problem in which a fertilized egg implants outside the uterus, in a place where the egg can't grow into a baby. Unfortunately, ectopic pregnancy leads to miscarriage. An ectopic pregnancy can also be a cause of severe pregnancy bleeding and is therefore a potentially life-threatening situation for the mother if she doesn't receive medical attention. Sadly, the only form of guaranteed effective treatment for an ectopic pregnancy is a pregnancy termination.
Ectopic Versus Tubal Pregnancy
The most common location for an ectopic pregnancy in the reproductive organs is in one of the fallopian tubes. These are the tubes through which the egg travels on its way from the ovary to the uterus following ovulation. If a woman has unprotected sex at this time, her partner's sperm cells may fertilize the egg while it's still on its journey to the uterus. Usually the egg continues on its way, and eventually implants in the uterus. But if the fertilized egg (now an embryo) gets stuck in the tube, the result is a tubal pregnancy.
Ectopic pregnancy can occur elsewhere, but this is rare. For example, ectopic pregnancies have been known to be located in the abdomen, the cervix (mouth of the uterus) and even in the ovaries.
Tubal Pregnancy Symptoms
The earliest symptoms of an ectopic pregnancy are exactly the same as the signs of pregnancy you would normally expect: you'll miss a period, you may have breast tenderness, nausea, and you may feel very tired. If you take a pregnancy test, it will come back positive.
So how do you know if the pregnancy is ectopic?
Well, later ectopic pregnancy symptoms are similar to the signs of miscarriage. Early warning signs that this type of miscarriage is about to happen include:
- Light vaginal bleeding
- Discomfort in the lower abdomen
- Cramping on one side of the pelvis
Advanced signs of miscarriage due to a tubal pregnancy include:
- Severe, stabbing pains on one side of the abdomen (possibly because a fallopian tube has ruptured)
- Pain in the shoulder and/or neck
- Heavy bleeding from the vagina
- Feeling extremely dizzy and light headed
- Passing out
- Feeling the need to defecate but being unable to do so
If you're experiencing heavy pregnancy bleeding or any of these other miscarriage symptoms, you need to get medical attention right away. Remember that a tubal pregnancy is a medical emergency.
Causes Of Ectopic Pregnancy
In many cases, doctors are unable to identify the exact cause of an ectopic pregnancy. However, if a woman has scarred, misshapen or otherwise damaged fallopian tubes, she is thought to have a higher risk of miscarriage due to ectopic pregnancy.
Reporting An Ectopic Pregnancy
Some pregnant women, particularly those who have struggled to get pregnant, are reluctant to report their ectopic pregnancy symptoms because they think they will be forced into having a pregnancy termination. They are scared of losing their baby. While this is understandable, it's also very dangerous.
An ectopic pregnancy is a difficult and extremely sad situation, but you have to remember that if left untreated, not only does it threaten your health generally, but it may also cause irreparable damage to your reproductive organs - leaving you unable to have children in the future.
Treating Ectopic Pregnancy
The immediate medical emergency resulting from an ectopic pregnancy is usually treated either through surgery to remove the ectopic tissue, or by administering injections of a drug called methotrexate. This drug dissolves the ectopic tissue cells, and is most effective when an ectopic pregnancy has been detected at an early stage. If the fallopian tube has been damaged, further surgery may be needed to repair the problem or, in cases of extreme damage, remove the fallopian tube altogether.
Preparing For Pregnancy Problems
While a doctor will usually advise you to minimize your stress and not to "expect" pregnancy problems, it is important to be aware of potential dangers and recognize the signs of a more serious event if it does occur.
If you experience bleeding during pregnancy, a tubal pregnancy may not necessarily be the cause. Bleeding occurs during some early pregnancies at the moment of implantation - meaning that the fertilized egg is actually exactly where you want it to be! However, it's worth getting any type of bleeding during pregnancy checked out by your doctor, especially if it's accompanied by any of the other miscarriage symptoms described above.
Ectopic Pregnancy Risk Factors
Women who have a higher-than-average ectopic pregnancy risk need to be extra vigilant. These include women who:
- Have had a previous ectopic pregnancy
- Have previously suffered from an STI
- Have previously been affected by pelvic inflammatory disease
- Have taken ovulation-inducing fertility drugs in order to get pregnant
- Have structural damage or abnormalities in their fallopian tubes
- Have conceived while taking the birth control pill or using an intrauterine contraceptive device (IUD)
While it's not possible to "prevent" an ectopic pregnancy per say, it is possible to prepare for a healthy pregnancy in advance. One way of doing this is to attend pre-conception counseling before you try to get pregnant. This counseling involves testing, and is the perfect time to get the health of your fallopian tubes checked out. Remember that conditions such as endometriosis and sexually transmitted diseases such as Chlamydia can cause fallopian tube damage - so be honest with your doctor about your medical history.
Some women find that the more they know about pregnancy problems such as ectopic pregnancy, the more they worry - especially if they are going through a first pregnancy. Other women find that being informed gives them a sense of control.
You have to decide for yourself where you are on this spectrum, but it's important, however, to at least be aware of the basics: namely, the signs of ectopic pregnancy, and the fact that you must go to the hospital if you have these symptoms.