Only 2% of pregnancies in the U.S. are ectopic, but this abnormal condition can be life-threatening. As such, it’s crucial for women to know the definition and symptoms of an ectopic pregnancy, as well as what can put them at risk for having this type of pregnancy.
Definition of Ectopic Pregnancy
An ectopic pregnancy occurs when a fertilized egg implants and grows in a location other than the uterus. While the fertilized egg can implant anywhere, the most common site for an ectopic pregnancy is the fallopian tubes. For this reason, it has also been referred to as a tubal pregnancy.
Symptoms of Ectopic Pregnancy
“The most important sign of an ectopic pregnancy is if their last period was not normal, but they thought it was normal,” Dr. Alan Lindemann, obstetrician, maternal mortality expert and author of Modern Medicine: What You’re Dying To Know tells Parentology.
One of the first symptoms of pregnancy for most women is a missed menstrual period. However, some women will experience implantation bleeding — a small amount of bleeding that can occur when the fertilized egg implants. A woman may mistake the bleeding for a period. Implantation bleeding can also happen with an ectopic pregnancy.
A woman who has an ectopic pregnancy can experience all the typical symptoms of pregnancy like nausea, fatigue, and breast tenderness. However, she may not suspect pregnancy because she may not realize she missed a period.
Implantation bleeding is lighter than a typical period and also occurs earlier than a regular cycle.
Pelvic pain is a hallmark symptom of an ectopic pregnancy that can also be mistakenly attributed to another cause. Some women experience discomfort on one side of their pelvic area when they ovulate. Pregnancy can cause one-sided pain in the round ligaments.
Pain from ovulation and round ligament pain will pass. However, pain from an ectopic pregnancy will continue to get worse.
“Initially, the pain will be on one side of the abdomen or the other. If pain extends across both sides of the upper abdomen, there is internal bleeding, and this is an emergency,” according to Dr. Lindemann.
Pain from an ectopic pregnancy can also be referred, which means it can be felt in other areas of the body, including the lower back or shoulder.
Diagnosis of Ectopic Pregnancy
“To diagnose an ectopic pregnancy, there needs to be an ultrasound showing where the pregnancy is and measurement of human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG) indicating pregnancy,” says Dr. Lindemann.
A woman’s body makes the hormone HCG when she is pregnant. Because HCG levels may rise more slowly with an ectopic pregnancy, a woman’s doctor may monitor her HCG levels.
Risk Factors & Treatment
Women with heightened risk include those who:
- Get pregnant with an IUD in place
- Had a previous ectopic pregnancy
- Have a history of endometriosis
- Are older than 35 years
- Have a history of sexually transmitted infections
- Have a history of fallopian tube surgery
“In the U.S., ectopic pregnancies tend to be treated with surgery. However, if the HCG levels are at the right levels, methotrexate can be used to treat ectopic pregnancy pharmacologically. The surgery ends the pregnancy immediately, but the pharmacological treatment may take several days to weeks to end the pregnancy,” Lindemann tells Parentology.
A woman who suspects she might have an ectopic pregnancy should immediately contact her healthcare provider.
Symptoms & Definition of Ectopic Pregnancy — Source
March of Dimes – Ectopic Pregnancy