Better Understanding Ectopic Pregnancies

An ectopic pregnancy is a situation wherein a fertilised egg implants somewhere other than the uterus. Sometimes called a tubal pregnancy, this condition most commonly occurs in the fallopian tubes, but can also occur in the abdominal cavity, the ovary, and the cervix. Due to the irregular positioning of the fertilised egg, ectopic pregnancies are not viable and pose the potential to be life-threatening if not properly treated.

Currently, it is estimated that approximately 2% of all women of childbearing age are at risk of an ectopic pregnancy and this statistic is slowly declining due to steady advancements in healthcare

Symptoms of an ectopic pregnancy

Although some instances of ectopic pregnancies are without symptoms, most women experiencing an ectopic pregnancy will experience symptoms between 4 and 12 weeks of pregnancy. There are several noticeable symptoms that occur because of an ectopic pregnancy, which are as follows:

  • Pain (potentially severe and persistent): pain can be experienced on different parts of the body depending on the case. It may occur on one side of the abdomen, in the bowel when passing urine or stool, or on the tip of the shoulder. Experiencing shoulder tip pain may be sign of internal bleeding caused by ectopic pregnancy and occurs as a result of irritation of the phrenic nerve in the diaphragm, which in turn causes referred pain (pain felt elsewhere in the body).
  • Extreme light-headedness and/or fainting
  • Vaginal bleeding – although some women may mistake this bleeding as their period, any bleeding in early pregnancy should be checked by a doctor. Most of the time it will be normal but it can be an early sign of miscarriage or ectopic pregnancy.

 Those at risk of ectopic pregnancies

There are a variety of factors that can influence the development of ectopic pregnancies in women, although these factors may not be readily identifiable in women. These include:

  • Previous ectopic pregnancy
  • Scarring to the fallopian tubes (from existing abdominal surgery, such as appendicectomy and bowel surgery, tubal surgery such as female sterilisation, or pelvic surgery, such as caesarean section)
  • Endometriosis
  • Progestin-only contraceptive pills
  • Pelvic inflammatory diseases (such as chlamydia or gonorrhoea)
  • Birth defects related to the fallopian tubes
  • Smoking
  • In-vitro fertilization
  • Use of an intrauterine contraceptive device

Ectopic pregnancies without proper treatment

Although many of the symptoms associated with ectopic pregnancy accompany a variety of other conditions, the early treatment of an ectopic pregnancy can prevent serious injury. If the fallopian tube does rupture, heavy bleeding can occur, which will then be followed by pain, and possibly light-headedness and fainting. If this occurs, consider it a medical emergency – without proper treatment, there is the potential for severe shock, and even death, to occur.

In a situation such as this, where a patient is taken to the hospital when there is a likelihood of rupture, an ectopic pregnancy will likely be treated surgically and very quickly.

How to manage an ectopic pregnancy

If you experience any of the relevant symptoms, or have a history of ectopic pregnancy, it is safest to visit your obstetrician – it is only in this way that your specialist can assess whether you are indeed at risk.

A physical exam is not enough to confirm an ectopic pregnancy. Instead, blood tests, and expert ultrasound are needed to confirm the presence of an ectopic pregnancy. Even with these tools, it may be difficult to assess whether an ectopic pregnancy is being suffered until at least four or five weeks into pregnancy. For emotional support after an ectopic pregnancy, Sands offer excellent advice for mothers experiencing ectopic pregnancies.

For more information about ectopic pregnancies, or if you’d like to book an appointment to test for an ectopic pregnancy, get in touch with Tom Cade today.