Ectopic Pregnancies Are Still So Misunderstood — Here's What to Know

A young African American woman is looking at the home pregnancy test while holding a smart phone, googling what is ectopic pregnancy
Getty Images | Riska
Getty Images | Riska

Pregnancy is not a one-size-fits-all experience and, unfortunately for some people, it's far from joyous.

Growing a human is no easy task and pregnancy can be a complicated time for anyone. Between the major changes happening to your body and the unexpected side effects, you may be left feeling like your initial joy has been overshadowed by stress, confusion, and a range of other emotions.

And for some people, that joy is immediately halted upon learning that they're having an ectopic pregnancy, or a pregnancy that happens outside the uterus, per the Cleveland Clinic. The condition affects only 1 in 50 pregnancies, but it can be life-threatening. While the topic of ectopic pregnancy gained some attention during the Roe v. Wade abortion rights debate, it's still so heavily misunderstood. Every person with a uterus (or not) should be aware of it, and the effect it can have on birthing people.

What Is an Ectopic Pregnancy?

An ectopic pregnancy happens when a fertilized egg implants and grows outside the main cavity of the uterus, according to the Mayo Clinic. Most often, the egg latches on in the fallopian tubes (called a tubal pregnancy), a place where the embryo is not meant to grow. If the fertilized egg continues to grow in the fallopian tube, it can rupture, causing internal bleeding.

It's important to know that ectopic pregnancies are not viable, according to the Mayo Clinic. That means an ectopic pregnancy can't proceed normally, and that fertilized egg will not survive or grow into a fetus. Ectopic pregnancies are considered a life-threatening condition, and because of it, they require emergency treatment, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

What Are the Symptoms of an Ectopic Pregnancy?

An ectopic pregnancy is usually discovered within the first eight weeks of pregnancy, according to the Cleveland Clinic — and if not that early, then most are found within the first trimester (aka three months). Because ectopic pregnancies generally happen so early in pregnancy — and because most people don't realize they're pregnant until five or six weeks in, on average — it's possible you could experience an ectopic pregnancy before you even know you're pregnant.

Ectopic pregnancy symptoms include bleeding and pelvic pain, per the Mayo Clinic. You may also feel shoulder pain or an urge to have a bowel movement. If you experience extreme lightheadedness, fainting, or shock, that's a sign your fallopian tube may have ruptured, and you should seek medical treatment ASAP. In general, you should contact your doctor immediately if you're experiencing any abnormal symptoms during pregnancy.

How Is an Ectopic Pregnancy Treated?

Treatment for an ectopic pregnancy is crucial. For starters, the ectopic tissue needs to be removed in order to prevent any life-threatening complications, per the Mayo Clinic. This can be done in a few ways. The first is with medication, typically methotrexate given via injection. The drug is meant to stop cell growth and dissolves existing cells, helping the body to absorb the pregnancy. The other treatment option is surgery (either laparoscopic or abdominal) to remove the ectopic pregnancy, according to the Mayo Clinic.

In an ectopic pregnancy where a fallopian tube has ruptured or where it's at risk of rupture, you will likely need to undergo surgery to remove the pregnancy, according to the Cleveland Clinic. In some cases where a fallopian tube has ruptured, the tube can be saved. However, in many cases, it must be removed, per the Mayo Clinic.

What Causes an Ectopic Pregnancy?

Obstetricians can't say with certainty. However, you might be at a higher risk for an ectopic pregnancy if you have had an STD, pelvic inflammatory disease, or endometriosis, have already had an ectopic pregnancy, have had pelvic or abdominal surgery, are 35 or older, or smoke cigarettes, according to Planned Parenthood. The Mayo Clinic also notes that tubal pregnancies can happen if the fallopian tube is damaged by inflammation or misshapen, since it happens when a fertilized egg gets stuck on its way to the uterus.

If you get pregnant after you've been sterilized (i.e. you've had your "tubes tied" or tubal litigation) or while you have an IUD, it's more likely to be ectopic. However, since these two forms of contraception are very effective at preventing pregnancy overall (about 99.5 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), it's unlikely, per Planned Parenthood.

Can You Get Pregnant After Having an Ectopic Pregnancy?

If you've had an ectopic pregnancy, you have a higher risk of having another one, according to the Mayo Clinic — but that doesn't mean you'll never have a healthy pregnancy.

Most people with a past ectopic pregnancy can have future successful pregnancies, according to the Cleveland Clinic. That said, you'll want to talk to your healthcare provider about what's best for your body and stay aware of the risks if you do become pregnant again.

—Additional reporting by Lauren Mazzo and Alexis Jones