In the intricate dance of conception and pregnancy, every step is critical. But when a step goes awry, as happens in around 1% of pregnancies in the UK, the outcome is an ectopic pregnancy.
Ectopic pregnancy is a serious medical condition where the pregnancy develops outside the womb, most often in the fallopian tube, and it’s unable to progress normally. For those who’ve had a previous ectopic pregnancy, the risk factor increases notably.
Due to the potential health risks they present, awareness of the symptoms and readiness to seek emergency care is vital. So, in this article we will arm you with knowledge of this critical health issue.
What is an ectopic pregnancy?
An ectopic pregnancy is a complication that arises when a fertilised egg implants outside the womb. This typically occurs in one of the fallopian tubes. Due to its location, the egg cannot develop into a healthy baby, and the situation becomes life-threatening for the mother. The growing egg could cause the fallopian tube to burst, leading to severe internal bleeding.
Women usually experience symptoms of ectopic pregnancy between weeks 4 and 12. However, some women will not experience any symptoms, so it would only show up on an early scan. The most common symptoms are:
- Missing a period – even without a positive pregnancy test
- Vaginal bleeding – this may be irregular, dark brown and watery
- Tummy pain – typically low down on one side
- Diarrhoea or discomfort on the toilet
- Shoulder tip pain
If the ectopic pregnancy grows large enough to split the fallopian tube, it can result in rupture. Signs of a rupture include sharp intense stomach pain, feeling faint, dizzy or nauseous. This is a medical emergency requiring immediate treatment.
What causes it?
Ectopic pregnancies are most caused by conditions that hamper the progress of the fertilised egg through the fallopian tube to the uterus. Factors such as inflammation or infection of the tube, hormonal factors, genetic abnormalities, and certain medical conditions, can contribute to its development.
A recent study highlights the dangers of this condition. It remains the leading cause of maternal death in early pregnancy. Alarmingly, the study highlighted significant disparities in maternal mortality rates associated with ectopic pregnancy amongst women from different ethnic backgrounds. The mortality rate is over three times higher in Black women, and nearly double in Asian women, compared to their white counterparts.
The study also emphasises that young and vulnerable women are overrepresented in ectopic pregnancy-related deaths. There are indications that better care could have possibly prevented these tragedies.
The findings highlight an urgent need for improved awareness about symptoms amongst both healthcare professionals, and the public, to facilitate early detection and intervention.
How is it treated?
Treatment for an ectopic pregnancy varies depending on the situation. If it is detected early, and the fallopian tube has not ruptured, medication may be administered to stop the egg’s growth. In cases where the tube has ruptured, emergency surgery is required to remove the ectopic tissue and stop the bleeding. In some cases, the affected fallopian tube may also need to be removed.
Early detection through awareness and timely medical consultation, significantly reduces the risk associated with this condition.