What is an ectopic pregnancy, what are the signs, causes and symptoms and what does it feel like?

AN ectopic pregnancy can be a devastating event for expecting parents.

It affects one in every 80 – 90 pregnancies, or 11,000 pregnancies each year, the NHS says.

Tragically an ecoptic pregnancy means a baby cannot survive.

This can cause emotional distress for the mum and dad.

On top of that, it can threaten the mum's life.

What is an ectopic pregnancy?

An ectopic pregnancy happens when a fertilised egg implants outside the womb.

Fertilisation, when the sperm meets the egg, happens in a fallopian tube, and usually the egg should travel to the womb where it implants.

In an ectopic pregnany, the fertilised egg attaches itself somewhere it cannot grow.

Most of the time this is on the fallopian tubes, but it can also happen on the ovaries, the cervix (neck to the womb) or another organ inside the pelvis.

The pregnancy does not usually last longer than 12 weeks, as symptoms will occur before then.

Sadly the pregnancy always has to be terminated. The egg will be removed in an operation or using medicine.

What causes an ectopic pregnancy?

Often the causes of an ectopic pregnancy aren’t clear and for most women, it is a one-off event, the charity Tommy's says.

But there are several conditions that can increase the likelihood of it occurring.

These are:

  • Smoking
  • Older age (the risk is highest among women aged 35-40)
  • Pelvic inflammatory disease (inflammation of the reproductive system usually caused by an STI)
  • A history of ectopic pregnancies
  • If you’ve had fertility treatments like IVF
  • Previous surgery on the fallopian tubes
  • Becoming pregnant while using an intrauterine device (IUD) as birth control

What are the signs and symptoms of an ectopic pregnancy?

Often there are no symptoms of an ectopic pregnancy, and it is usually detected when a mother goes for a routine pregnancy scan.

If you do have symptoms, typically these will start to show between the fourth and 12th month of the pregnancy.

These can include:

  • Vaginal bleeding
  • Brown watery discharge
  • Pain in the lower abdomen down one side
  • Missed period
  • Discomfort when going to the bathroom
  • Pain in the tip of your shoulder

What is shoulder tip pain and what does it feel like?

Shoulder tip pain is when you experience an abnormal pain where your arm and shoulder meet.

It is not known why this particular pain occurs after an ectopic pregnancy but it is thought to be linked to internal bleeding which can occur with the condition.

If you experience this pain you should get medical advice straight away.

What happens during and after treatment?

The treatment of an eptopic pregnancy will depend on a number of factors but there are three main options.

Women who are in the early stage of pregnancy may be told to wait for a miscarriage.

Some women are given medication in an injection to stop the pregnancy developing.

Keyhole surgery may be used to remove the fertilised egg and sometimes the fallopian tube.

But if the fallopian tube has ruptured, this can cause life-threatening bleeding. The woman will need emergency surgery.

Most women who have had an ectopic pregnancy will be able to get pregnant again, even if they've had a fallopian tube removed, the NHS reassures.

It states that overall, 65 per cent of women achieve a successful pregnancy within 18 months of an ectopic pregnancy.

Tommy's charity says that if you are having a difficult time coming to terms with what has happened, you may find it helpful to:

  • Talk to your partner, family or friends about how you feel
  • Ask your care team what support is available – they may refer you to a counsellor who specialises in support for people affected by ectopic pregnancies
  • Talk to a Tommy’s midwife free of charge from 9am–5pm, Monday–Friday on our helpline 0800 0147 800 or email [email protected]
  • Visit The Ectopic Pregnancy Trust for more support and information.

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