Understanding Ectopic Pregnancy

Reviewed by James Brann, MD

Ectopic Pregnancy

When your pregnancy is outside of your uterus, in the wrong part of your body, it’s called an ectopic pregnancy. It’s definitely a serious condition, and could even become life threatening.
The beginning of pregnancy is when a woman’s egg joins up with a man’s sperm. These cells then grow in a much larger group of cells, referred to as an embryo. During normal pregnancies, the embryo attaches itself to the lining of your uterus and grows into a baby.

During an ectopic pregnancy, a woman’s egg also joins up with a man’s sperm, forming an embryo. However, the embryo never attaches itself to the lining of the uterus. It instead attaches to another place in a woman’s body and starts growing. While the embryo is growing larger, it can’t ever actually grow into a baby. It will, however, start causing bleeding and pain, and cause some additional problems, too. These could include life-threatening problems.

In most cases, during an ectopic pregnancy, the embryo attaches itself to the lining of a fallopian tube. These tubes are what connect your ovaries to your uterus. In this case, a doctor calls it a “tubal pregnancy”. The embryo may also attach itself to the ovary, inside of your belly or cervix, but these are all rare cases.

Am I at risk of ectopic pregnancy?

Certain women are at an increased risk of having ectopic pregnancy. This may be the case if you:
  • Smoke cigarettes
  • Had a previous ectopic pregnancy
  • Are receiving certain treatments to increase the chance of getting pregnant
  • Have damaged or abnormal fallopian tubes from past surgeries or infections

If you use a certain type of birth control called an “IUD”, or rather intrauterine device, you have an extremely low chance of even getting pregnant. However, if you’re using an IUD and you become pregnant, you’re at a much higher risk of ectopic pregnancy. In this case, you’ll want your doctor to check to see if you have an ectopic pregnancy.

Symptoms of ectopic pregnancy

As for the symptoms of ectopic pregnancy, you may not have any symptoms in the beginning. If you do, though, they may include vaginal bleeding. This may be light or heavy, or even just brown staining or spots of blood. You may also experience lower belly pain.

For some women, they won’t have any symptoms until their ectopic pregnancy begins causing more serious problems. If the embryo is growing in a fallopian tube, that tube may actually burst open. Symptoms to watch out for include:

  • Heavy vaginal bleeding
  • Passing out or fainting, or feeling like you may
  • Severe pain in your lower belly

If you’re pregnant and start experiencing any of these symptoms, head to the ER immediately.

Testing for ectopic pregnancy

There are some tests to see if you have an ectopic pregnancy. A certain type of imaging test, called an ultrasound, takes pictures of the inside of a woman’s body to show where the embryo is. A blood test can also measure hCG. This is a hormone made during pregnancy. The blood test sees how much is being made, and checks to make sure you’re pregnant.

While a test may show an ectopic pregnancy immediately, your doctor may also have to repeat the test after a few days to know with certainty that you indeed have an ectopic pregnancy.

Treating ectopic pregnancy

If you have an ectopic pregnancy, your doctor has two ways to treat it. This will depend on your symptoms and the size of the embryo, among other things. Both of the treatments, however, involve taking the embryo out. This may be done with either medicine or surgery. With medicine, you’ll get a shot, which stops the embryo from growing and makes it dissolve. If you receive this treatment, you’ll need to come back in a few weeks for blood tests to make sure it worked. With surgery, your doctor will remove the embryo. He or she may, or may not, need to also remove your fallopian tube.

Preventing ectopic pregnancy

While you can’t prevent most ectopic pregnancies, you can reduce your chances of having one. Use a condom when you have intercourse. You can catch an infection during sex, which gives you an increased chance of having an ectopic pregnancy.

Getting pregnant again

A majority of women can go through a normal pregnancy even after having an ectopic pregnancy. You need to let your nurse or doctor know, though, if you’re trying to conceive. They’ll be able to follow your pregnancy along to ensure everything is progressing normally.

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