Ectopic pregnancy: signs and symptoms of an ectopic pregnancy

An ectopic pregnancy is an alarming and sometimes life-threatening condition; here’s how to spot the symptoms and what to expect if you have one.

What is an ectopic pregnancy?

An ectopic pregnancy occurs when a fertilised egg implants outside of the womb, most often in one of the two fallopian tubes that are too small to sustain a pregnancy. An ectopic pregnancy can also occur in areas such as the cervix, in an ovary, in the abdomen, or within a Caesarean scar, but this is rare.

How common is an ectopic pregnancy?

According to NHS statistics, 1 in every 90 pregnancies in the UK is ectopic – around 11,000 a year. A number of celebrities have suffered ectopic pregnancies, including Nicole Kidman, singer-songwriter Vanessa Carlton, and actress and model Jaime King.

Who is more likely to have an ectopic pregnancy?

It can happen to any fertile woman but there’s an increased risk if you’ve had an ectopic pregnancy previously, have abnormal fallopian tubes or had tubal surgery, or have endometriosis.

A history of pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), recurring sexually transmitted infections that can scar the tubes such as chlamydia or gonorrhoea, using an intrauterine device (IUD), fertility treatment, abdominal surgery, emergency contraception, being pregnant over the age of 40, and smoking can also raise the chances of an ectopic pregnancy.

You are not more likely to have an ectopic pregnancy if you’ve had miscarriages, abortions or played sport, and the condition isn’t hereditary.

Ectopic pregnancy, illustration

Getty Images/Science Photo Libra

Signs and symptoms

Because there aren’t always symptoms and the ones that do appear mimic some of the signs of early pregnancy, an ectopic pregnancy is often picked up during an ultrasound scan. If you do feel pain Jackie Ross, Consultant Gynaecologist at Kings College Hospital, explains it as “a sharp, stich-like pain, but the pain [can be] more non-specific than that.”

Early symptoms (before the 12th week of pregnancy) include:

  • A positive pregnancy test (but you may also get a negative reading)
  • Brown, watery discharge or vaginal bleeding that looks different to a typical period
  • One-sided stomach pain
  • Discomfort when going to the toilet
  • Diarrhoea
  • Pain in the tip of the shoulder

Sometimes an ectopic pregnancy ends in rupture, which is when the pregnancy tears the fallopian tube and causes internal bleeding. This is serious and requires emergency surgery. Call an ambulance if you’re pregnant, or think you’re pregnant, and get the following symptoms:

  • An intense pain in the stomach, and often into the neck and shoulder
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Dizziness, fainting or collapse
  • Going pale

How soon would I know if I have an ectopic pregnancy?

You will find out if you have an ectopic pregnancy in an early scan (12 weeks or earlier) or if you develop symptoms. If you’re not due a scan but have symptoms or any concerns visit your GP or the Early Pregnancy Unit.

How long can an ectopic pregnancy go unnoticed?

If it’s not picked up in a scan, an ectopic pregnancy can go unnoticed for the first 16 weeks of pregnancy, until the fertilised egg is large enough to cause significant pain, but usually creates symptoms earlier than this.

Ectopic pregnant treatment

The NHS offers three treatments for ectopic pregnancy:

  • Close monitoring – the fertilised egg will sometimes dissolve and no treatment is needed
  • Medication to stop the unviable pregnancy
  • Surgery (usually keyhole surgery) to remove the fertilised egg and, sometimes, the affected fallopian tube

Can a baby survive if it’s an ectopic pregnancy?

Sadly no. An ectopic pregnancy is not a viable pregnancy as the fertilised egg won’t have room to grow outside the womb and the pregnancy can’t be moved.

Will an ectopic pregnancy reduce my chances of getting pregnant?

This is one of the biggest concerns women who’ve had an ectopic pregnancy face. The good news is that, according to the NHS, most women get pregnant again, even with one fallopian tube. “If you take 100 women who’ve had an ectopic pregnancy 60-70 per cent of those women will be able to get pregnant again naturally,” says Ross, and others can opt for fertility treatment.

Advice and where to go for support

If you have any worries that you may be having an ectopic pregnancy get medical help. “The earlier a women comes and seeks help, the more options she has and the better the assessment can be made,” advises Ross.

The Ectopic Pregnancy Trust charity is a helpful resource that offers a helpline, email support and discussion forums.

If you do suffer an ectopic pregnancy remind yourself that it’s a loss and with loss comes feelings of sadness and grief. Give yourself time to heal and reach out for support. Many women are also fearful about becoming pregnant again.