What is an Ectopic Pregnancy? Signs, Symptoms & Treatment

What is an Ectopic Pregnancy? Signs, Symptoms & Treatment

No two people experience an ectopic pregnancy in exactly the same way.

And no two journeys are the same.

But one thing is certain: an ectopic pregnancy is never a blame game.

Pregnancy loss is different for each person, both emotionally and physically, but it’s never a sign that they did anything wrong.

And while ectopic pregnancy is not something that can be predicted or controlled, there are symptoms and warning signs to be aware of.

Here, we’ll take you through signs of ectopic pregnancy, possible causes, and potential treatments—all under the watchful eye of HCPC specialist Biomedical scientist (and women’s health correspondent) Kellie Leonard.

Note: This is a serious medical issue, so if you suspect an ectopic pregnancy, contact your medical team right away. If the symptoms you are experiencing are caused by something else, you’ll be able to put your mind at rest. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help and support. ❤️

In this article: 📝

  • What is an ectopic pregnancy?
  • What causes an ectopic pregnancy?
  • What are the warning signs of ectopic pregnancy?
  • How soon would you know if you have an ectopic pregnancy?
  • Is ectopic pregnancy a miscarriage?
  • Can a baby survive an ectopic pregnancy?
  • What is the treatment of an ectopic pregnancy?
  • How painful is an ectopic pregnancy?

What is an ectopic pregnancy?

Pregnancy starts with a fertilized egg attaching itself to the uterus lining.

An ectopic pregnancy happens when the fertilized egg implants and grows anywhere outside the uterus instead.

This could be the ovaries, abdominal cavity, or even the cervix, but the vast majority happen in the fallopian tubes (about 96%).

What’s important to know is that an ectopic pregnancy can’t go ahead normally.

Sadly, the fertilized egg can’t survive, and the growth can lead to life-threatening complications if left untreated.

It’s something that occurs naturally, so never feel like you’ve done anything wrong if this happens to you.

And you’re not alone—about 1 in 50 pregnancies in the US is ectopic.

It’s simply one of those things.

What causes an ectopic pregnancy?

What causes an ectopic pregnancy isn’t always clear.

The following factors are linked to higher chances of ectopic pregnancy:

  • Inflammation or scarring of the fallopian tubes, usually caused by infection or surgery
  • Previous pelvic or abdominal surgery
  • Hormonal imbalances
  • Genetic differences
  • Maternal age of 35 years or more
  • Medical conditions that affect the shape and function of the fallopian tubes and other reproductive organs and make it harder for the egg to travel
  • Conception aided by fertility medication
  • Smoking
  • A history of sexually transmitted diseases such as gonorrhea or chlamydia

A 2020 study also found that women who have experienced an ectopic pregnancy have a 10-20% chance of another.

And about 50% of women who experience this type of pregnancy loss do not have any of these known risk factors.

We know. Not. Helpful.

But it’s worth stressing that this is only one small part of a much larger puzzle.

Let’s expand below.

What are the chances of getting pregnant after ectopic pregnancy?

For many women, experiencing an ectopic pregnancy can be deeply unsettling, especially if the journey of trying to conceive has been a complicated one.

Future fertility is always a concern with an ectopic—it’s only natural.

But one early study found that fertility rates remain as high as 61% in women who had experienced an ectopic pregnancy.

And in the same study, 38% went on to have a successful pregnancy.

So, while women with a history of ectopic pregnancy have a higher risk of experiencing another, many do go on to have healthy pregnancies.

Really, your chances of getting pregnant again largely depend on the possible cause and what treatment options can be put in place.

What are the warning signs of ectopic pregnancy?

You may not notice any signs of ectopic pregnancy at first.

Initial warning signs are increasing pelvic pain or stomach cramps.

This is often accompanied by bleeding or spotting, which could look like a period.

Nausea and breast soreness are also common ectopic pregnancy symptoms.

Of course, these are also pregnancy symptoms in the first trimester.

So these things shouldn’t be a cause for concern on their own.

If blood starts leaking from the fallopian tube, you might feel a greater urge to poop, as well as shoulder pain on either side of your body.

Other warning signs of ectopic pregnancy include:

  • Sharp waves of pain across your stomach, the tip of your shoulder, neck, or pelvis
  • Pain (either mild or severe) on just one side of your stomach
  • Vaginal spotting or bleeding, which can be light or heavy
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Rectal pressure (the urge to go to the toilet more often and discomfort when peeing or pooping)

It’s rare, but an ectopic pregnancy can also result in a negative pregnancy test result.

How soon would you know if you have an ectopic pregnancy?

Ectopic pregnancy symptoms don’t always appear.

You might only find out about an ectopic pregnancy at your first ultrasound scan.

If you do have signs of an ectopic pregnancy, they usually occur between the fourth and twelfth week of pregnancy.

They are most common six to eight weeks after your last period.

If you’re pregnant and have any of the symptoms we’ve listed, seek medical advice.

They could be signs of an emergency needing treatment as soon as possible.

Your doctor will probably perform an ectopic pregnancy ultrasound if they suspect anything.

They might also do a blood test, which checks for ectopic pregnancy HCG levels and progesterone.

If you’re in severe pain or experiencing heavy bleeding, your doctor might not have time to perform these steps.

If the fallopian tube ruptures, this can cause severe internal bleeding.

So they’ll want to perform emergency surgery ASAP.

Is ectopic pregnancy a miscarriage?

Note: We’re using the term “miscarriage” rather than our preferred “pregnancy loss” here to help people find this information.

When an ectopic pregnancy occurs, the embryo cannot survive.

This means the pregnancy will be lost.

Ectopic pregnancy symptoms often mimic a miscarriage.

But the key difference is while miscarriages aren’t always life-threatening to the mother, an ectopic pregnancy can be fatal.

One of the main risks is the fallopian tube bursting, which causes severe internal bleeding.

An ectopic pregnancy isn’t a developing pregnancy.

While a fetus in an ectopic pregnancy can sometimes survive for several weeks, complications occur long before it can live independently.

Can a baby survive an ectopic pregnancy?

Unfortunately, no.

A baby can’t survive an ectopic pregnancy.

A fertilized egg can’t grow anywhere other than the uterus, meaning it will never develop into a fully formed baby.

Ectopic pregnancies aren’t safe for the mother either.

It’s important to remove the embryo for their immediate health and for future healthy pregnancies.

What is the treatment of an ectopic pregnancy?

When it comes to ectopic pregnancies, quick treatment is best for reducing the chances of complications.

There are three main ectopic pregnancy treatments, which will be administered depending on where the ectopic pregnancy is found and how it develops.

These are:

  • Expectant or active management: Your doctor will carefully monitor you and use either medication or surgery if the fertilized egg doesn’t dissolve naturally.
  • Medications: This usually involves injections of drugs such as methotrexate (Rheumatrex), which stops the ectopic pregnancy from progressing.
  • Ectopic pregnancy surgery: A laparoscopy (known as “keyhole surgery”) is done under general anesthetic to remove the fertilized egg and repair or remove any damage to the impacted fallopian tube.

Your doctor will recommend a specific treatment based on your symptoms and test results.

They should explain the risks and benefits of each option, including how they impact future pregnancies.

How long can an ectopic pregnancy go without treatment?

An ectopic pregnancy can last between six to sixteen weeks, no matter where the embryo implants.

Beyond this and the structure runs the risk of bursting since it cannot expand to hold a growing fetus.

And this usually happens long before the fetus can live on its own.

It’s important to remember here that an ectopic pregnancy is not a viable pregnancy—only the uterus can ensure a healthy, successful pregnancy.

Going without treatment for ectopic pregnancy only means increasing the chances of the fallopian tube rupturing and causing a major internal bleed.

And it’s for this reason that an ectopic pregnancy is considered a life-threatening emergency requiring immediate treatment.

How painful is an ectopic pregnancy?

Pain from an ectopic pregnancy can range anywhere from mild and dull to sharp and severe.

It can also occur on one side of your stomach or all over.

Equally, pain might happen in the shoulder or neck, particularly if blood from a ruptured ectopic pregnancy starts building up and impacting nerve tissue.

An ectopic pregnancy is painful, not just from the physical side, though.

Pregnancy loss in any form, no matter how early or late, can feel devastating.

It’s important to take care of yourself after an ectopic pregnancy,

Get plenty of rest, eat well, and reach out to your support network.

Giving yourself time to grieve will help you process the loss.

Your doctor might also recommend counseling or support groups in your area.

If you’d like to chat with people with similar experiences, the Peanut community is always here for you. ❤️


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