Usually, a fertilized egg travels down the fallopian tube, headed for the uterus. In about one in 50 pregnancies, the tube is damaged or blocked enough that the egg can't progress, leading it to implant elsewhere. Usually implantation happens in the tube itself, leading to what is called a tubal or ectopic pregnancy.
Ectopic pregnancies can not be saved. For the mother's safety, it must be ended. If not caught and treated, an ectopic pregnancy will progress, with the embryo growing until the tube ruptures. Severe abdominal pain and bleeding will result. The rupture can cause permanent damage to the tube, which may be lost. If bleeding is severe and not treated right away, the mother could die. Thankfully, most ectopic pregnancies are caught before this happens.
Certain conditions raise the risks of having an ectopic pregnancy. Getting pregnant despite a tubal ligation (having your tubes tied) can put you at risk, as can surgery on the tubes to correct a problem or reverse a previous tubal ligation. Previous ectopic pregnancies are another risk factor. If your mother took DES while pregnant with you, you may be at risk.
Getting pregnant while using an IUD increases the odds of an ectopic pregnancy. And if your tubes were damaged by an infection of the upper reproductive tract (pelvic inflammatory disease, or PID), your odds increase. Untreated sexually transmitted diseases such as chlamydia can cause PID. Often there are no symptoms, so you may be at risk without knowing.
Symptoms of an ectopic pregnancy usually appear around the sixth or seventh week, and may vary greatly depending on how far along you are and whether the tube has ruptured. Ectopic pregnancies don't always register on a home pregnancy test, so you may not even know you're pregnant. Seek help immediately if you have abdominal or pelvic pain or tenderness, possibly only on one side, sometimes with nausea and vomiting. Vaginal bleeding may be red or brownish, continuous or intermittent. Shoulder pain that accompanies either of these, particularly when you lie down, is a red flag warning. And if the tube has ruptured, you may show signs of shock such as a weak, racing pulse, dizziness, or fainting. Get help immediately.
Ectopic pregnancy is a serious and often heartbreaking complication but with proper care, the chances of having a future healthy pregnancy can still be high.