Ectopic Pregnancy

What is an ectopic pregnancy?

About 2 percent of all pregnancies develop outside the uterus, called an ectopic pregnancy. These nearly always occur the fallopian tube. Rarely, an ectopic pregnancy will be located in an ovary or in the cervix, or even in the abdomen. Ectopic pregnancy is more common in women with the following conditions:

  • Infertility or difficulty conceiving
  • Endometriosis
  • Sexually transmitted diseases, which can cause infection and scarring in the pelvis
  • Tubal surgery
  • Intrauterine conception device (IUD)

When the embryo implants in the fallopian tube, there is usually not enough blood flow to keep the embryo healthy and it dies.

The tube may begin to expel some of the tissues or bleed. Some embryos do continue to grow and may become large enough to break through the fallopian tube. This occurs in about 10 percent of cases and can cause severe bleeding, hemorrhage, and shock. The most serious ectopic pregnancies are those that are located near the uterine opening of the fallopian tube. However, most occur in the middle or outer end of the fallopian tube.

What are the symptoms of an ectopic pregnancy?

Women with an ectopic pregnancy may have:

  • irregular bleeding
  • pelvic or abdominal pain
  • one-sided pain

How is an ectopic pregnancy diagnosed?

Tests to detect ectopic pregnancy involve measuring the level of a hormone in the blood called human chorionic gonadotrophin (hCG), which may not increase as it normally would. Ultrasound examination can show a fetus or other tissue in or near the fallopian tube, or blood collecting in the mother's pelvis. Laparoscopy may also be used to diagnose ectopic pregnancy. This is surgery that uses a lighted tube inserted into the mother's abdomen to examine inside her pelvis and often provides the most accurate diagnosis.

How is an ectopic pregnancy treated?

Ectopic pregnancy may be treated in several ways depending on whether the fallopian tube has ruptured or not, the development level of the pregnancy, and the mother's hormone levels. Treatments may include:

  • Allowing the ectopic pregnancy to heal and be absorbed on its own (only for specific cases). Ectopic pregnancy should not be ignored. Always seek a physician's care with any bleeding or pain in pregnancy.
  • Medication
  • Surgery (possibly including laparoscopy with salpingostomy or salpingectomy): A surgical procedure to make a small opening in the fallopian tube and remove the pregnancy. If the tube is damaged, total or partial salpingectomy (removal of the fallopian tube) may be necessary.

In rare cases, a laparotomy may be necessary. This is a surgical procedure in which an incision is made in the mother's abdomen to remove the ectopic pregnancy or damaged fallopian tube.