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Ectopic pregnancy: A serious and potentially life-threatening condition

In natural conception, in order for a pregnancy to occur, an egg must be released from a woman’s ovary, travel down her fallopian tube, and become fertilized by a man’s sperm. Under normal circumstances, the fertilized egg then travels down into the woman’s uterus where it implants itself and grows into a fetus over the course of nine months. However, in approximately 1 in every 50 pregnancies the fertilized egg implants itself outside of the uterus, typically in the fallopian tube, resulting in a very serious medical condition called an ectopic pregnancy. Since the walls of the fallopian tubes are unable to support an embryo’s growth, the tube may rupture and bleed a few weeks after implantation, causing potentially life-threatening consequences (e.g., severe internal bleeding).

Up to 50% of ectopic pregnancies are caused by pre-existing damage to the fallopian tubes, for example, resulting from sexually transmitted infections (e.g., chlamydia, gonorrhea), endometriosis, pelvic surgeries, or a ruptured appendix. Women who have had any type of surgery involving their fallopian tubes (e.g., tubal ligation), as well as women who become pregnant with the assistance of fertility drugs or in vitro fertilization, also have a higher risk of having an ectopic pregnancy. Women who have already had one ectopic pregnancy are also at increased risk of having another ectopic pregnancy.

The most common signs and symptoms of an ectopic pregnancy include pelvic pain and irregular bleeding during the first few weeks of pregnancy. Hormonal testing, ultrasound technologies, and surgical procedures (e.g., laparoscopy) are most commonly used to diagnose an ectopic pregnancy. If an ectopic pregnancy is diagnosed early enough, it may be treated by medication (i.e., methotrexate). However, some ectopic pregnancies – particularly those that cause the fallopian tubes to rupture – must be treated via surgical methods such as laparoscopy.

Unfortunately, there is an increased risk of infertility after having an ectopic pregnancy. However, over half of women who experience an ectopic pregnancy will eventually have a healthy baby. If you think you may be experiencing an ectopic pregnancy, it is important that you visit the nearest emergency room and consult with your physician.

To learn more about ectopic pregnancy, read the American Society for Reproductive Medicine’s guide for patients here.

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