Usually, a woman’s ovaries release an egg every month, about 14 days before the first day of her period. This is called ovulation. When a couple has sexual intercourse and does not use birth control around the time of ovulation, a man’s sperm swim to meet the woman’s egg. When a sperm penetrates the egg, it’s called fertilization or conception. The fertilized egg then travels to the woman’s uterus, where it burrows into the lining of the uterus and begins to grow.
If the fertilized egg implants somewhere else other than the uterine lining, it is an ectopic pregnancy. In most ectopic pregnancies, the fertilized egg attaches to the fallopian tube. However, it can also attach to an ovary, the cervix, or somewhere in the abdominal cavity.
Unfortunately, any place outside of the uterus doesn’t have the right environment for a baby to develop. There is not enough room and if the fertilized egg continues to grow, it can cause excessive bleeding. This bleeding can be life threatening for the pregnant woman.
Any woman can have an ectopic pregnancy, but there are a few risk factors that increase your chances. These include:
- A prior ectopic pregnancy
- Damage to a fallopian tube
- Pelvic infections or inflammation
- Pregnancy when using an intrauterine device (IUD) or after having a tubal ligation
- Fertility treatments
Signs and symptoms
You will not know right away that you have an ectopic pregnancy. You may have the typical signs of pregnancy, like a missed period and nausea. Or you may have no signs of pregnancy. If you take a home pregnancy test, you will get a positive result.
But as the embryo gets bigger, you may have signs that are unusual and not typical of early pregnancy. These include:
- Pain in the pelvic area. The pain may be mainly on one side. It can start out mild and then become sharp and stabbing.
- Lower back pain
- Shoulder pain
- Bleeding from the vagina
- Feeling faint or dizzy
- Low blood pressure
There are two types of treatment for an ectopic pregnancy: medicine (methotrexate) or surgery. Your provider will decide which one is best. After treatment, your provider regularly checks your hCG levels until they return to zero. This can take a few weeks. If your levels stay high, it may mean that you still have ectopic tissue in your body. If this happens, you may need additional treatment.
If you have had an ectopic pregnancy, it is important to take time to grieve for your loss. You can have a healthy pregnancy following an ectopic pregnancy but ask your provider when it is OK for you to try to conceive again.
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