What is an Ectopic Pregnancy?

What is an ectopic pregnancy?

An ectopic pregnancy is a pregnancy that implants at a site other than the inside wall of the uterus. In most cases, the embryo most often attaches to the fallopian tube. The embryo can rarely attach to other sites, for example, like the ovary or the cervix.

Is an ectopic pregnancy dangerous?

An ectopic can potentially be dangerous. The pregnancy can possibly burst as the embryo develops and this can cause rupture of the organ that it is implanted on (often the fallopian tube). This can be life-threatening - it can lead to internal bleeding, shock, or rarely death. Thus, if you think you may be pregnant or have an ectopic pregnancy, you should see your provider. Early identification of an ectopic is crucial so that the pregnancy can be treated appropriately and followed closely to lower the risk of complications.

How will I know if I have an ectopic pregnancy? What are some of the symptoms?

Some patients do not know that they have an ectopic pregnancy which is why one should establish care with a provider once pregnant. Some symptoms of an ectopic pregnancy include: a missed menstrual period, abdominal pain, or vaginal bleeding (light or heavy). Some symptoms of an ectopic pregnancy do not present until the pregnancy has ruptured the fallopian tube and include: severe abdominal pain, lightheadedness or dizziness including fainting, or vaginal bleeding (light or heavy).

Why would I get an ectopic pregnancy? What are some of the risk factors?

Sometimes an ectopic pregnancy can develop without known risk factors, and there is no clear answer. There may be risk factors in one’s history that make a chance of ectopic pregnancy more likely. Some of these risk factors may include:

  • Damage to or an abnormality with the fallopian tubes from a prior infection, surgery, tumor, or structural difference present from birth

  • Previous ectopic: a prior ectopic pregnancy increases your risk of having another one

  • Prior pelvic infections with gonorrhea or chlamydia

  • In vitro fertilization

  • Intrauterine contraceptive devices: Women who use an IUD are less likely to have an ectopic pregnancy because the IUD prevents all types of pregnancy, however, if a pregnancy does occur in a woman with an IUD, there is a higher risk it will be an ectopic pregnancy.

If I have a risk factor for an ectopic pregnancy, is there a way to prevent one?

Unfortunately, we do not have options to prevent an ectopic pregnancy.

How is an ectopic pregnancy diagnosed and evaluated?

Both transvaginal ultrasound and bloodwork for the pregnancy hormone (human chorionic gonadotropic - hCG) are utilized for assessment. A transvaginal ultrasound is usually used to detect an intrauterine pregnancy and can often see an ectopic pregnancy but not always. If one doesn’t see anything on ultrasound, an ectopic pregnancy could still be present. The hCG blood draw is completed because this too can confirm a pregnancy, and utilization of the hCG level in conjunction with the ultrasound can help make a diagnosis.

If an ectopic pregnancy is diagnosed, should it be treated right away?

Yes. Due to the dangerous nature of ectopic pregnancies, watching and waiting is usually not recommended. Treatment options are medical (with a shot called methotrexate) or surgical (usually through a minimally invasive technique aka laparoscopy) in which the ectopic pregnancy or fallopian tube with the pregnancy are removed.

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