Signs and symptoms of an ectopic pregnancy

Dr Christine Catling
Dr Christine Catling
Dr Christine Catling, a midwife for over 25 years, is the Director of Midwifery Studies at UTS. She believes research, innovation and good quality midwifery are pivotal to the well-being of mothers and young families. Christine has extensive experience in antenatal education, policy development and research, and has published on workforce issues, homebirth, vaginal birth...
Created on Oct 03, 2023 · 3 mins read

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An ectopic pregnancy is a fear that many mums may have, but thankfully it is uncommon. Ectopic pregnancies occur in around 1-2 per cent of pregnancies in Australia. The actual causes of it and its symptoms aren’t always known, but there are some things to be aware of.

What is an ectopic pregnancy?

An ectopic pregnancy is when a fertilised egg is implanted outside of the uterus, most commonly in the fallopian tube. This creates some problems for pregnancy because the embryo is unable to develop due to the fallopian tube not being big enough to support the growing fetus. Normally, in an effective pregnancy, the egg will move from the fallopian tube to the uterus around six days after being fertilised.

How will I know if I am having an ectopic pregnancy?

Symptoms can be hard to come by but will typically become apparent around week 4-12 of pregnancy. The earlier it is diagnosed, the easier it will be to save the tube and prevent serious bleeding and damage. Whilst aches and pains are normal, they can create some anxiety for you. Here are some of the things you should look out for:

  • Serious pain on one side of the abdomen
  • Severe waves of pain in your neck, shoulder, abdomen, or pelvis
  • Vaginal spotting or bleeding – usually in a dark red colour and often doesn’t last the length of a normal period
  • Diarrhea and vomiting/ bowel pain

How can it be diagnosed?

These symptoms can be linked to other issues, so it can be difficult to determine if it might be an ectopic pregnancy. If you are worried about these symptoms, contact your doctor or midwife and they will have you come in for a few tests.

  • Vaginal ultrasound – this will see if the gestational sac is in fact in your uterus
  • Blood test – checks to see if the necessary hormones during pregnancy are present

If you are diagnosed with an ectopic pregnancy, your doctor might prescribe you a medicine called methotrexate which will stop the development of the egg. If the egg has developed past the stage where it will die naturally, surgery might be required. This is necessary to avoid a rupture of the fallopian tube. Your doctor may use laparoscopic (keyhole) surgery to take the fertilised egg out of the fallopian tube.

Can I prevent it?

Unfortunately, an ectopic pregnancy is not usually preventable or predictable. Typically those at higher risk of ectopic pregnancy include:

  • Women over the age of 35
  • Previous surgery in your pelvis or abdomen – this can also be from surgery of the fallopian tubes
  • Having Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID) – this is an infection that is typically caused by chlamydia
  • Falling pregnant while having an IUD
  • Having endometriosis
  • Smoking
  • A history of ectopic pregnancies
  • History of infertility
  • Undergoing fertility treatment (IVF)

If you have a history of ectopic pregnancies, it is still possible to go on to have a successful pregnancy. You just need to take the right precautions and get regular checkups with your doctor to ensure a safe pregnancy. Whilst there are many pains, aches, and worries that come with pregnancy, it’s always important to listen to your body and if you’re concerned about anything, speak with your doctor or midwife.

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