Ectopic pregnancies happen very occasionally, in about one of every 60 pregnancies. Whereas in a normal pregnancy the fertilised egg will travel down the fallopian tube and settle in the uterus to grow, in an ectopic pregnancy the egg doesn't make it as far as the womb and begins to grow in the fallopian tube instead.
Why can't an ectopic pregnancy be continued?
Because the egg is growing in the fallopian tube, there is no room for a foetus to grow without causing immense pain and danger to the mother. In addition, fallopian tubes do not have the necessary lining of nutrients to allow the fertilised embryo to grow.
Why do they happen?
Sometimes fallopian tubes have scarring on them due to previous infections such as pelvic inflammatory disease or due to surgery, or sometimes the woman was simply born with an abnormally shaped tube. This means that the fertilised egg is unable to reach the uterus to grow, as its progress is impeded.
Ectopic pregnancies are more common in women over the age of 35, and if pregnancy has occurred while an IUD is in place. As previous ectopic pregnancies may create scarring in the fallopian tubes, it follows that one such pregnancy may lead to another.
How will I know if I am having an ectopic pregnancy?
Women who have ectopic pregnancies often know that they are pregnant, after testing positive for pregnancy hormones (though sometimes these can appear weaker than usual). Usually the problem becomes apparent when the woman suffers pain in the lower abdomen, growing worse over time. Sometimes this pain is "referred": that is, the pain is felt elsewhere in the body, such as in the shoulder. Some bleeding is sometimes experienced, along with weakness or fainting.
If you experience any of these symptoms you should see your doctor immediately, even if you don't think you are pregnant. Ectopic pregnancies can be life-threatening. The sooner they are treated, the better the long-term prognosis is.
How is it treated?
Doctors will first carry out some diagnostic tests, which may include a pregnancy test, along with ultrasound and pelvic examinations. Sometimes this is enough to diagnose an ectopic pregnancy, though doctors may also carry out a culdocentesis, which is where a fine needle is inserted to an area near the uterus to see if any blood is collecting from a potentially ruptured fallopian tube.
After an ectopic pregnancy is diagnosed and it is ascertained how far along it is, doctors will use a variety of treatment options. Drugs may be used to facilitate the body's "absorption" of the tissue if it caught early enough. Surgery is often necessary to remove the pregnancy and repair or remove the fallopian tube. If the tube is not removed, a further course of drugs may be necessary to ensure that the ectopic tissue is totally removed.
Will I be able to have children afterwards?
Chances of having a child naturally run to around 60 percent. You are likely to still have one fallopian tube, though doctors may investigate whether this is also damaged. If this is the case, you may be able to transplant a fertilised egg in your uterus for a baby to grow from there. Your doctor or fertility specialist will be able to further advise.