Learn about the methods used to diagnose ectopic pregnancy.

By Nicole Harris
February 22, 2019
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Credit: S_L/Shutterstock

A normal, healthy pregnancy develops in a woman’s uterus. But around 2% of the time, an embryo implants somewhere else – usually in the fallopian tubes, but sometimes in the ovaries, abdomen, cervix, or previous C-section scar. This is called an ectopic pregnancy.

Left untreated, ectopic pregnancies could cause ruptured fallopian tubes, internal bleeding, and maternal death, according to Dr. Mark D. Levie, professor of obstetrics & gynecology and women's health at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. With speedy diagnosis and treatment, however, a woman probably won’t have any complications. Here’s what you need to know about the tests used to diagnose an ectopic pregnancy.

Would an Ectopic Pregnancy Show Up on a Home Pregnancy Test?

Since ectopic pregnancies still produce the hormone hCG, they’ll register as a positive home pregnancy test. Women with ectopic pregnancies will also experience early pregnancy symptoms like sore breasts, nausea, spotting, and more. The telltale symptoms (bleeding and abdominal pain) typically appear around 6-8 weeks, says Dr. Levie.

Diagnosing Ectopic Pregnancy

If you experience abdominal pain or bleeding during the first trimester, you should see a doctor to rule out ectopic pregnancy. This is especially important as an ectopic pregnancy progresses, which may cause lightheadedness, weakness, shoulder pain, fainting, and more. Getting a diagnosis early reduces the risk of complications like fallopian tube rupture and internal bleeding.

Confirming the Pregnancy

Many women visit their doctor for abdominal pain and bleeding without knowing the cause. If the doctor thinks you may be pregnant, he’ll test your blood or urine for human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG). Levels of hCG rise within 10 days of a missed period – although sometimes an increase can be detected earlier.

Pelvic Exam

Your doctor might also conduct a pelvic exam. If he notices painful areas or a tender mass in the fallopian tube, he might suspect ectopic pregnancy. More testing is necessary to confirm the diagnosis. Pelvic exams could also rule out other causes of abdominal pain and vaginal bleeding.

Ultrasound

“We usually do an ultrasound to see if the pregnancy is in the uterus or outside the uterus,” says Tracy Anderson, M.D., a Kaiser Permanente Ob-Gyn based in Lakewood, Colorado. Doctors may use an abdominal ultrasound or transvaginal ultrasound (a device placed into the vagina that creates images through sound waves). However, Dr. Anderson notes that pregnancy in the fallopian tube might have inconclusive ultrasound results, leading to the next ectopic pregnancy test.

Quantitative hCG Test

Your healthcare provider may have already tested hCG levels to confirm a pregnancy. But according to Dr. Levie, he might also do a quantitative hCG test, which measures the exact level of hCG in the blood. “Usually during pregnancy, hormone levels increase every two days by 40%,” he says. “If this doesn’t happen, then it could signal an ectopic pregnancy.” What’s more, hCG levels tend to be lower overall in an ectopic pregnancy. You may need to test hCG levels over a few days for definite results.

Note that if ectopic pregnancy symptoms are severe (intense pain, heavy bleeding, etc.) the doctor may immediately treat the ectopic pregnancy. Waiting for a diagnosis could put the mother’s health at risk.

Positive Ectopic Pregnancy Tests: Now What?

If a doctor confirms ectopic pregnancy in the early stages, he will probably prescribe methotrexate to stop cell growth, says Dr. Anderson. But if the ectopic pregnancy is advanced or ruptured, surgery may be necessary to remove it.

Dr. Levie stresses the importance of early diagnosis of ectopic pregnancy. “Get to the doctor early in the pregnancy to confirm it’s in the right place,” he says, adding that most mothers are unlikely to suffer complications with proper treatment.

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