Some pregnancies aren’t able to result in a healthy baby. When a fertilised egg implants in a location outside of the womb it is called an ectopic pregnancy. Ectopic pregnancy is usually see the egg implanted in the fallopian tubes, and as a result of the pregnancy cannot continue; there simply isn’t enough room for the baby to be able to develop. More often than not there will be signs of ectopic pregnancy that women will be able to recognise.
Ectopic pregnancies can be life threatening; it is important that such pregnancies are identified early to prevent bleeding, but also to give the best possible chance for the fallopian tube to be saved. (In some cases, the tube unfortunately needs to be removed.)
Most women have symptoms of an ectopic pregnancy between weeks 4 and 12 of the pregnancy, but in rare cases an ectopic pregnancy may not cause any noticeable symptoms. In each case routine pregnancy testing will be able to identify an ectopic pregnancy so that treatment can commence.
Symptoms and signs of ectopic pregnancy
- Bleeding – bleeding can often be a sign of ectopic pregnancy, but this bleeding will be different from a regular period; it could stop and start frequently, and the blood is usually more red then standard period blood is. (Period blood tends to be darker red to brown as it is older blood from the uterine lining.) Since pregnancy tests can often only be able to reveal a pregnancy at the time period would be due, many women mistake this bleeding for their period and don’t actually know that they are pregnant as yet.
- Abdominal pain – including pain on one side, or in the bowel- in and around the reproductive organs some women may feel sharp and severe pain on one side of their abdomen, or pain when using the bathroom.
- Shoulder tip pain – this is pain that is felt where the arm and shoulder meet. The jury is out on why this is a symptom of ectopic pregnancy but it is generally something which women feel while they are lying down, and can be interpreted as a sign that there is internal bleeding. This is a phenomenon called referred pain; there is a nerve in the diaphragm called the phrenic nerve which becomes irritated by the bleeding, and this irritation is what causes the referred pain felt in the shoulder blade.
- Vomiting or diarrhoea – often women experiencing an ectopic pregnancy will have symptoms similar to a gastrointestinal disease, and thus experience diarrhoea or vomiting.
How an ectopic pregnancy is diagnosed
Signs of ectopic pregnancy alone cannot diagnose a problem; many signs of ectopic pregnancy are also signs of a uterine pregnancy, or a woman’s monthly cycle. Medical tests are required for full confirmation.
- Ultrasound – which due to the early stage of the pregnancy may need to be marginal rather than abdominal (internal with an ultrasound warned as opposed to an external ultrasound probe pressed to the outside of a woman’s abdomen)
- blood tests
- keyhole surgery (in rare cases)