What happens if an embryo implants somewhere other than the uterus? This is an ectopic pregnancy -- a life-threatening condition that requires emergency treatment. It may occur in up to one of every 50 pregnancies.
An ectopic pregnancy usually occurs when the embryo implants in one of the fallopian tubes instead of the uterus. This is why doctors sometimes call it a tubal pregnancy. In rare cases, the embryo attaches to an ovary or other organ in the abdomen.
Ectopic pregnancy happens most often within the first few weeks of pregnancy. You might not even know you're pregnant. But doctors usually discover it by the 8th week of pregnancy.
Rest assured: If this happens to you, it's likely you can go on to have a healthy pregnancy in the future.
Signs and Symptoms of an Ectopic Pregnancy
Common signs and symptoms of an ectopic pregnancy include:
- Light vaginal bleeding
- Nausea and vomiting
- Lower abdominal pain
- Sharp abdominal cramps
- Pain on one side of the body
- Dizziness or weakness
- Pain in the shoulder, neck, or rectum
If the fallopian tube ruptures, the pain and bleeding can be severe enough to cause fainting.
If you experience the symptoms listed above, contact your doctor right away. Then go straight to the emergency room. Quick care at the hospital can reduce the risk of severe bleeding. It can also help preserve your fertility.
Causes of an Ectopic Pregnancy
A damaged fallopian tube may not allow the fertilized egg to pass to the uterus. This can cause the egg to implant in the fallopian tube or somewhere else.
You might not ever know what caused an ectopic pregnancy. But these factors increase your risk:
- Use of an intrauterine device (IUD), a form of birth control, at the time of conception
- History of pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)
- Sexually transmitted diseases such as chlamydia and gonorrhea
- A fallopian tube problem present since birth
- Scarring from endometriosis or previous pelvic surgery
- History of ectopic pregnancy
- Unsuccessful tubal ligation (surgical sterilization) or reversal of this procedure
- Fertility drugs or other infertility treatment such as in vitro fertilization (IVF)
- Cigarette smoking
- Exposure to the drug DES during your mother's pregnancy.
Diagnosing an Ectopic Pregnancy
Once you arrive at the hospital, doctors may perform:
- A pregnancy test
- Blood tests to measure levels of pregnancy hormone, BhCG
- A pelvic exam
- An ultrasound to view the condition of your uterus and fallopian tubes
If the doctor confirms an ectopic pregnancy, he or she will decide on the best treatment. This will depend on your medical condition and your future plans for pregnancy.
Treating an Ectopic Pregnancy
With an ectopic pregnancy, sadly the embryo can't survive.
If rupture occurs. What if your fallopian tube has ruptured? You need emergency surgery to stop the bleeding. If your fallopian tube and ovary are damaged, the doctor may need to remove them
If rupture does not occur. If the fallopian tube has not ruptured and the pregnancy has not progressed very far, you have more options available.
The doctor may give you medication to stop the growth of pregnancy tissue, which your body then absorbs. Or, the doctor may be able to do laparoscopic surgery to remove the embryo and repair the damage. It is possible to make a small incision on the fallopian tube, which may preserve the health of your fallopian tube.
After treatment. Additional blood tests can make sure that the entire tubal pregnancy was removed. The blood tests detect the level of hCG, the hormone produced during pregnancy.
Getting Pregnant After an Ectopic Pregnancy
Most women who have an ectopic pregnancy have normal pregnancies and births in the future, even if a fallopian tube had to be removed. If the remaining fallopian tube functions well, you can still get pregnant. If you have a treatable illness, such as a sexually transmitted disease, being treated can improve your chances of having a future successful pregnancy.
Discuss the timing of your next pregnancy with your doctor. Some suggest waiting for a while (from 3 to 6 months) before trying to conceive again.
Take the time you need to heal both physically and emotionally after an ectopic pregnancy. Above all, don't blame yourself. This is a loss and can be a big shock. Counseling can help you cope. Pregnancy loss support groups may also be a valuable resource to you and your partner. Ask your doctor for more information about counseling and support groups.