An ectopic pregnancy occurs when the fertilized egg grows in an abnormal place outside the uterus, usually in the fallopian tubes. An ectopic pregnancy most commonly begins in one of the fallopian tubes, but although rare, can also take place in the ovary, abdominal cavity or cervix. The fertilized egg is unable to survive if it is growing anywhere outside the uterus. Left untreated, an ectopic pregnancy can cause severe blood loss and life-threatening complications.
Symptoms of an Ectopic Pregnancy
There may be no early signs of an ectopic pregnancy and in many cases women only experience the early symptoms of pregnancy including: a missed period, nausea and breast tenderness. As the fertilized egg begins to grow in the fallopian tube, signs of an ectopic pregnancy may include:
- Abdominal pain
- Shoulder pain
- Rectal pressure
- Vaginal bleeding
- Nausea or vomiting
If the fallopian tube ruptures, heavy abdominal bleeding may occur causing fainting and possible shock. Left untreated, this condition can be fatal.
Causes of an Ectopic Pregnancy
In some cases, there is no specific cause of an ectopic pregnancy. An ectopic pregnancy may by caused by a blockage that keeps the fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus. This may be due to a fallopian tube that is inflamed, damaged or misshapen. An ectopic pregnancy may be more likely in women with any of the following:
- History of pelvic inflammatory disease
- Sexually transmitted disease
- Fertility issues
- An IUD in place at time of conception
- A previous ectopic pregnancy
- A tubal ligation or reverse tubal ligation
Advanced age and cigarette smoking may also put a woman at risk of an ectopic pregnancy.
Diagnosis of an Ectopic Pregnancy
An ectopic pregnancy is diagnosed through a pelvic examination and a review of symptoms. Blood tests and an ultrasound can help to confirm the diagnosis. Because serious complications can occur as a result of the ectopic pregnancy, emergency treatment is often necessary.
Treatment of an Ectopic Pregnancy
The fertilized egg cannot survive outside the uterus, so the developing cells and tissue must be removed. An ectopic pregnancy that is detected early may be treated with an injection of a medication called methotrexate. This may be used to impede cell growth and dissolve the existing tissue. If the fallopian tube has not ruptured, laparoscopic surgery is performed to remove the ectopic tissue and repair the fallopian tube. If the fallopian tube is significantly damaged, it is usually removed.