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Alternative Names Return to topTubal pregnancy; Cervical pregnancy; Abdominal pregnancy
Definition Return to top
An ectopic pregnancy is an abnormal pregnancy that occurs outside the womb (uterus). The baby cannot survive.
Causes Return to top
An ectopic pregnancy occurs when the baby starts to develop outside the womb (uterus). The most common site for an ectopic pregnancy is within one of the tubes through which the egg passes from the ovary to the uterus (fallopian tube). However, in rare cases, ectopic pregnancies can occur in the ovary, stomach area, or cervix.
An ectopic pregnancy is usually caused by a condition that blocks or slows the movement of a fertilized egg through the fallopian tube to the uterus. This may be caused by a physical blockage in the tube.
Most cases are a result of scarring caused by:
Up to 50% of women who have ectopic pregnancies have had swelling (inflammation) of the fallopian tubes (salpingitis) or pelvic inflammatory disease (PID).
Some ectopic pregnancies can be due to:
In a few cases, the cause is unknown.
Sometimes, a woman will become pregnant after having her tubes tied (tubal sterilization). Ectopic pregnancies are more likely to occur 2 or more years after the procedure, rather than right after it. In the first year after sterilization, only about 6% of pregnancies will be ectopic, but most pregnancies that occur 2-3 years after tubal sterilization will be ectopic.
Women who have had surgery to reverse tubal sterilization in order to become pregnant also have an increased risk of ectopic pregnancy.
Taking hormones, especially estrogen and progesterone (such as those in birth control pills), can slow the normal movement of the fertilized egg through the tubes and lead to ectopic pregnancy.
Women who have in vitro fertilization or who have an intrauterine device (IUD) using progesterone also have an increased risk of ectopic pregnancy.
The "morning after pill" (emergency contraception) has been linked to some cases of ectopic pregnancy.
Ectopic pregnancies occur in 1 in every 40 to 1 in every 100 pregnancies.
Symptoms Return to top
If the area of the abnormal pregnancy ruptures and bleeds, symptoms may get worse. They may include:
Internal bleeding due to a rupture may lead to shock. Shock is the first symptom of almost 20% of ectopic pregnancies.
Exams and Tests Return to top
The health care provider will do a pelvic exam, which may show tenderness in the pelvic area.
Tests that may be done include:
A rise in quantitative HCG levels may help tell a normal (intrauterine) pregnancy from an ectopic pregnancy. Women with high levels should have a vaginal ultrasound to identify a normal pregnancy.
Other tests may be used to confirm the diagnosis, such as:
An ectopic pregnancy may affect the results of a serum progesterone test.
Treatment Return to top
Ectopic pregnancies cannot continue to birth (term). The developing cells must be removed to save the mother's life.
You will need emergency medical help if the area of the ectopic pregnancy breaks open (ruptures). Rupture can lead to shock, an emergency condition. Treatment for shock may include:
If there is a rupture, surgery (laparotomy) is done to stop blood loss. This surgery is also done to:
In some cases, the doctor may have to remove the fallopian tube.
A mini-laparotomy and laparoscopy are the most common surgical treatments for an ectopic pregnancy that has not ruptured. If the doctor does not think a rupture will occur, you may be given a medicine called methotrexate and monitored. You may have blood tests and liver function tests.
Outlook (Prognosis) Return to top
Most women who have had one ectopic pregnancy are later able to have a normal pregnancy. A repeated ectopic pregnancy may occur in 10 - 20% of women. Some women do not become pregnant again.
The rate of death due to an ectopic pregnancy in the United States has dropped in the last 30 years to less than 0.1%.
Possible Complications Return to top
The most common complication is rupture with internal bleeding that leads to shock. Death from rupture is rare. Infertility occurs in 10 - 15% of women who have had an ectopic pregnancy.
When to Contact a Medical Professional Return to top
If you have symptoms of ectopic pregnancy (especially lower abdominal pain or abnormal vaginal bleeding), call your health care provider. You can have an ectopic pregnancy if you are able to get pregnant (fertile) and are sexually active, even if you use birth control.
Prevention Return to top
Most forms of ectopic pregnancy that occur outside the fallopian tubes are probably not preventable. However, a tubal pregnancy (the most common type of ectopic pregnancy) may be prevented in some cases by avoiding conditions that might scar the fallopian tubes.
The following may reduce your risk:
References Return to top
Jian Z, Linan C. Ectopic gestation following emergency contraception with levonorgestrel. Eur J Contracept Reprod Health Care. 2003 Dec;8(4):225-8.
Sheffer-Mimouni G, Pauzner D, Maslovitch S, Lessing JB, Gamzu R. Contraception. 2003 Apr;67(4):267-9.
Nielsen CL, Miller L. Ectopic gestation following emergency contraceptive pill administration. Contraception. 2000 Nov;62(5):275-6.
Furlong LA. Ectopic pregnancy risk when contraception fails. A review. J Reprod Med. 2002 Nov;47(11):881-5. Review.
Katz VL, Lentz GM, Lobo RA, Gershenson DM. Katz: Comprehensive Gynecology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby;2007.Update Date: 2/5/2008 Updated by: Peter Chen, MD, Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology, University of Pennsylvania Medical Center, Philadelphia, PA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.