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Ectopic pregnancy

Ectopic pregnancy

Pregnancy begins with a fertilized egg. Normally, the fertilized egg attaches to the lining of the uterus. An ectopic pregnancy occurs when a fertilized egg implants and grows outside the main cavity of the uterus. Ectopic implantation occurs in approximately 2% of first trimester pregnancies. About 98% of ectopic pregnancies are tubal. Other sites of ectopic implantation are the peritoneum or abdominal viscera, the ovary, and the cer­vix.

Any condition that prevents or retards migration of the fertilized ovum to the uterus can predispose to an ectopic pregnancy, including a history of infertility, pelvic inflammatory disease, ruptured appendix, and prior tubal surgery. Combined intrauterine and extra-uterine pregnancy (heterotopic) may occur rarely. In the United States, undiagnosed or undetected ectopic pregnancy is one of the most common causes of maternal death during the first trimester.

Symptoms and Signs

Severe lower quadrant pain occurs in almost every case. It is sudden in onset, stabbing, intermittent, and does not radiate. Backache may be present during attacks. Shock occurs in about 10%, often after pelvic examination. At least two-thirds of patients give a history of abnormal men­struation; many have been infertile.


Blood may leak from the tubal ampulla over a period of days, and considerable blood may accumulate in the peritoneum. Slight but persistent vaginal spotting is usually reported, and a pelvic mass may be palpated. Abdominal distention and mild paralytic ileus are often present.


The CBC may show anemia and slight leukocytosis. Quan­titative serum pregnancy tests will show levels generally lower than expected for normal pregnancies of the same duration. If beta-hCG levels are followed over a few days, there may be a slow rise or a plateau rather than the near doubling every 2 days associated with normal early intrauter­ine pregnancy or the falling levels that occur with spontaneous abortion. A progesterone level can also be measured to assess the viability of the pregnancy.

Ultrasonography can reliably demonstrate a gestational sac 5–6 weeks from the last menstruation and a fetal pole at 6 weeks if located in the uterus. An empty uterine cavity raises a strong suspicion of extrauterine pregnancy, which can occasionally be revealed by transvaginal ultrasound. Specified levels of serum beta-hCG have been reliably cor­related with ultrasound findings of an intrauterine preg­nancy. For example, a beta-hCG level of 6500 milli-units/mL with an empty uterine cavity by transabdominal ultra­sound is highly suspicious for an ectopic pregnancy. Simi­larly, a beta-hCG value of 2000 milli-units/mL or more can be indicative of an ectopic pregnancy if no products of conception are detected within the uterine cavity by transvaginal ultrasound. Serum beta-hCG values can vary by laboratory.

Laparoscopy is the surgical procedure of choice both to confirm an ectopic pregnancy and in most cases to permit removal of the ectopic pregnancy without the need for exploratory laparotomy.

Ectopic pregnancy should be suspected when postabor­tal tissue examination fails to reveal chorionic villi. Steps must be taken for immediate diagnosis, including prompt microscopic tissue examination, ultrasonography, and serial beta-hCG titers every 48 hours.

Differential diagnosis

Clinical and laboratory findings suggestive or diagnostic of pregnancy will distinguish ectopic pregnancy from many acute abdominal illnesses such as acute appendicitis, acute pelvic inflammatory disease, ruptured corpus luteum cyst or ovarian follicle, and urinary calculi. Uterine enlarge­ment with clinical findings similar to those found in ecto­pic pregnancy is also characteristic of an aborting uterine pregnancy or hydatidiform mole.


Patients must be warned about the complications of an ectopic pregnancy and monitored closely. In a stable patient with normal liver and renal function tests, metho­trexate (50 mg/m2) intramuscularly—given as single or multiple doses—is acceptable medical therapy for early ectopic pregnancy. Favorable criteria are that the preg­nancy should be less than 3.5 cm in largest dimension and unruptured, with no active bleeding and no fetal heart tones. Several small studies have not found an increased risk of fetal malformations or pregnancy losses in women who conceive within 6 months of methotrexate therapy.

When a patient with an ectopic pregnancy is unsta­ble or when surgical therapy is planned, the patient is hospitalized. Blood is typed and cross-matched. The goal is to diagnose and operate before there is frank rupture of the tube and intra-abdominal hemorrhage. The use of methotrexate in an unstable patient is abso­lutely contraindicated.


Surgical treatment is definitive. In most patients, diag­nostic laparoscopy is the initial surgical procedure per­formed. Depending on the size of the ectopic pregnancy and whether or not it has ruptured, salpingostomy with removal of the ectopic pregnancy or a partial or complete salpingectomy can usually be performed. Clinical condi­tions permitting, patency of the contralateral tube can be established by injection of indigo carmine into the uterine cavity and flow through the contralateral tube confirmed visually by the surgeon; iron therapy for anemia may be necessary during convalescence.

Rho(D) immune globulin (300 mcg) should be given to Rh-negative patients.


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