What is an Ectopic Pregnancy?

by Katelyn Schwanke
(last updated September 5, 2008)

Ectopic pregnancies are pregnancies in which the egg fertilizes outside of the uterus where the baby is supposed to develop. In an ectopic pregnancy, once the egg and sperm have united during conception, the embryo stays in the mother's tubes, cervix, ovary or another part of female physiology. Ectopic pregnancies were first documented in the eleventh century and when they were initially discovered, proved to be fatal to the growing embryo. The frequency of ectopic pregnancies have increased substantially (about 6-fold) since the 1970s and now 2% of women experience them.

Since the eleventh century physicians and surgeons have developed ways to better identify ectopic pregnancies, prevent them and fix them. Why is it so important that an ectopic pregnancy is caught and resolved? Ectopic pregnancies often cause whatever organ the egg has implanted in to rupture. The rupture is caused by the growth of the egg. The uterus, where healthy pregnancies occur, has the ability to stretch and make room for a growing baby but other reproductive organs do not. When the egg implants elsewhere it stretches that organ until, unless resolved, it bursts causing massive hemorrhage. In the case of a ruptured organ many women and embryos, prior to current surgical methods, died.

If you become pregnant your doctor will do regular check ups and ask you to monitor spotting or light bleeding that can be indicative of an ectopic pregnancy. If an ectopic pregnancy is suspected, your doctor will offer a variety of surgical options. Choosing surgery means that your pregnancy must be aborted. In the operation, your surgeon will use laparoscopy to expose the pelvic cavity. Once the pelvic cavity is exposed the surgeon will incise (cut into) the fallopian tube, or other implantation area. The fetus will be aborted and the surgery may result in bleeding.

Doctors and nurses will follow your post operation health carefully. If you would like to get pregnant again, your chance of having another ectopic pregnancy is about 10%. If you are fearful of having another ectopic pregnancy, ask your physician about in vitro fertilization (surgical implantation of sperm) which significantly reduces your chances of having another ectopic pregnancy.

It is important to limit your risk ectopic pregnancies in any way possible. By quitting smoking, using a condom, avoiding multiple sexual partners, and being tested for Chlamydia (a sexually transmitted disease) you may significantly reduce your risk and carry your baby to full term.

If you have any further questions, be sure to contact your doctor, registered nurse or nurse practitioner.

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