Articles and Topics
What is an ectopic pregnancy?
Q: How does a woman know if she has an ectopic or tubal pregnancy?
A: An ectopic pregnancy refers to a pregnancy that implants outside of the uterus, most commonly in the fallopian tube, which transports an egg from the ovary to the uterine cavity. These pregnancies usually occur because of a previous pelvic infection or inflammation that resulted in scar tissue within the fallopian tube.

As an ectopic pregnancy grows, the fallopian tube stretches, resulting in pain and bleeding. Symptoms include cramping or tenderness on one side of the lower abdomen, vaginal spotting and light bleeding. These symptoms are particularly worrisome in the face of a positive pregnancy test.

It is important to immediately seek medical attention if you have symptoms of an ectopic pregnancy. An ectopic pregnancy is abnormal and cannot develop normally. As the pregnancy grows, it will cause the fallopian tube to bleed and eventually rupture. If tubal rupture occurs, severe anemia can result. leading to dizziness and weakness. If this is not treated immediately, it can be life-threatening.

To diagnose an ectopic pregnancy, doctors follow the rise in pregnancy hormone, human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG), and look for the location of the pregnancy using transvaginal pelvic ultrasonography. In the first weeks of pregnancy, hCG levels rise in a predictable manner. Very early ectopic pregnancies may be too small for visualization but may be suspected when hormone levels fail to rise appropriately. If an intrauterine pregnancy is seen by ultrasonography, it is extremely unlikely that a tubal pregnancy coexists.

If a ruptured ectopic pregnancy is suspected, call 911. This is a life-threatening medical emergency and requires immediate treatment. Symptoms could include lightheadedness, dizziness, a pale complexion, a fast heartbeat (over 100 beats per minute) and severe abdominal pain.

Laura E. Stachel M.D. Obstetrician & Gynecologist