Signs of Ectopic Pregnancy

What is an ectopic pregnancy?

Ectopic pregnancy is a common, potentially life–threatening, condition affecting as many as 1 in 80 pregnancies. An ectopic pregnancy occurs when the fertilised egg implants outside the cavity of the womb, usually in the fallopian tube. As the pregnancy grows, the fallopian tube stretches causing pain. If not treated quickly enough, the tube can burst, causing internal bleeding, which can lead to collapse and even death.

What causes an ectopic pregnancy?

Normally a fertilised egg travels from the ovary down the fallopian tube and implants into the wall of the womb six to seven days after fertilisation. In an ectopic pregnancy the egg does not travel to the uterus or womb but instead implants somewhere outside the womb, usually in one of the narrow fallopian tubes where it cannot develop properly. In most cases the exact cause of an ectopic pregnancy is unknown but it is often a result of some sort of damage to the fallopian tube. The tube may have become blocked or narrowed by previous surgery or infection.

One of the most important causes of infection (pelvic sepsis, PID (pelvic inflammatory disease) and salpingitis) is chlamydia which may have no symptoms.

What are the symptoms and signs of ectopic pregnancy?

Signs of ectopic pregnancy are often difficult to distinguish, meaning that an ectopic pregnancy is not always straightforward to diagnose.

Symptoms are typically experienced in the first stage of pregnancy. You may have an ectopic pregnancy if you have a missed or late period, a positive urine pregnancy test and other signs of pregnancy, as well as one or more of the symptoms listed below:

  • Abnormal bleeding. This may be lighter or heavier than a normal period bleed, and can be experienced for a prolonged period of time. A sign of ectopic pregnancy is a type of bleeding that is often dark in colour and watery (similar to prune juice).
  • Abdominal pain. This can be persistent and severe. It may be on one side only, but not necessarily on the side where the ectopic pregnancy is.
  • Shoulder tip pain. An unusual pain where your shoulder ends and your arm begins. Can be a sign of ectopic pregnancy causing some internal bleeding. 
  • Diarrhoea or pain / discomfort when opening the bowels.
  • Fainting, or feeling dizzy or light headed.

An ectopic pregnancy is a medical emergency. If you are showing signs of ectopic pregnancy you should seek immediate medical attention without delay. This may be either at your General Practitioner’s surgery or in a hospital setting.

See more on Risk Factors and Diagnosis & Treatment.