Ectopic Pregnancy

What is an Ectopic Pregnancy?

An ectopic pregnancy occurs when a fertilized egg implants outside of the uterus. When it does not make it out of a tube it results in a tubal pregnancy. It can also occur in an ovary, the cervix and even in the abdominal cavity. Pregnancy cannot be sustained outside of the uterus.

A hormonal imbalance or abnormal egg development can be the cause, but it can also happen if a fallopian tube is swollen or malformed. No matter the reason, it can be emotionally as well as physically devastating.

What are the Symptoms of an Ectopic Pregnancy?

Ectopic pregnancies often begin like the rest. Women typically experience breast tenderness and swelling, nausea, morning sickness and other usual symptoms of early pregnancy. However, when unnoticed it is far from normal.

Symptoms include

  • Pain in the pelvic or abdominal region
  • Vaginal spotting or bleeding
  • Dizziness
  • Faintness
  • Lower back pain

A pelvic exam may be performed to check for an ectopic mass in an ovary or fallopian tube. A transvaginal ultrasound and blood test may be used to confirm an ectopic pregnancy. Heavy bleeding is life-threatening and must be treated immediately.

Ectopic Pregnancy Causes

Sexually active women who have reached the childbearing age are at risk for an ectopic pregnancy, no matter who they are or what they do. However, there are some women that are more at risk for this type of pregnancy, including older women who become pregnant and those who have had tubal surgery for sterilization purposes.

Other common causes and risk factors include:

  • Use of IVF treatment, where embryos may travel into the Fallopian tube during implantation
  • Women who have previously had ectopic pregnancies
  • Women who have had or do have pelvic inflammatory disease
  • Females that take certain contraceptives, such as the mini-pill, the morning after pill and the copper contraceptive coil, or IUCD

Cigarette smoking can also cause ectopic pregnancies as smoking increases protein PROKR1 levels, which prevent the fertilized eggs from making its way into the womb.

How is an Ectopic Pregnancy Treated?

An ectopic pregnancy cannot be saved. The diagnosis must be confirmed. Developing tissue must be removed to avoid life-threatening complications.

Treatment includes

  • An injection of medication that ends growth and dissolves the pregnancy tissue
  • HCG blood monitoring after injection
  • Laparoscopic surgical removal of pregnancy tissue
  • Laparotomy surgery to remove pregnancy tissue
  • Emergency surgery to stop bleeding, remove ectopic tissue and repair fallopian tube
  • Grief counseling

Most women experience healthy subsequent pregnancies.

Ectopic Pregnancy Prevention

To prevent ectopic pregnancies, it’s important to reduce the factors that put you at risk. This means quitting smoking, having safe sex by using either a male or female condom to prevent pelvic inflammatory disease, which is often the result of a sexually-transmitted disease, and getting checked regularly for sexually transmitted diseases. You should also take steps to reduce the number of sexual partners you have for your safety.

Women who have previously had ectopic pregnancies or who become pregnant when they are older should have frequent checkups with their gynecologist. These checkups can help your doctor keep a closer eye on the fallopian tubes so they can prevent an ectopic pregnancy from occurring.

If you are suffering from infertility and using infertility treatments to become pregnant, frequent visits to your gynecologist are also needed. These doctors are familiar with the symptoms of ectopic pregnancy and will help prevent or diagnose this type of pregnancy quickly if it becomes an issue.

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Last Reviewed:
September 20, 2016
Last Updated:
December 19, 2017