Distinguishing between Ectopic Pregnancy and Tubal Pregnancy

The scientific difference between an ectopic and a tubal pregnancy is merely one of location.  An ectopic pregnancy is any pregnancy where the embryo implants outside of the uterus, whereas a tubal pregnancy is when the embryo implants in a fallopian tube, specifically.  This makes a tubal pregnancy one of the types of ectopic pregnancies.

In a normal pregnancy, the woman’s ovary releases an egg, which begins to travel down the fallopian tube to the uterus (women have one ovary and one fallopian tube on each side, both leading to the uterus.)  Sperm enter the vagina, swim up through the cervix to the uterus, and, if they don’t meet the egg in the uterus, swim farther, up into the fallopian tubes, to meet and fertilize the egg there.  Many normal pregnancies begin with the egg being fertilized in a fallopian tube, and with the embryo continuing its journey to the uterus before implanting itself in the uterine wall to grow.  Sometimes, however, for reasons unknown, the embryo implants in the fallopian tube (95% of ectopic pregnancies) in the ovary itself, the cervix, or outside the reproductive anatomy altogether, in the abdomen.

Because any place other than the uterus does not have enough room to expand and accommodate a growing fetus, ectopic and tubal pregnancies do not make themselves known right away, but rather as the fetus grows.  In the first weeks of pregnancy, all symptoms of ectopic and tubal pregnancies are identical to regular pregnancy.  In fact, most ectopic and tubal pregnancies are not discovered until the fetus is straining and bursting the organ that contains it, posing a serious danger to the mother.

Ectopic and tubal pregnancies have identical symptoms; vaginal bleeding, abdominal pain (often located on one side) which can be sharp or stabbing, headaches, dizziness and/or low blood pressure from internal bleeding, lower back pain, or referred pain in the shoulder or neck.  Anyone experiencing these symptoms during a pregnancy needs emergency care.

Because the growing fetus will burst the organ containing it, there is serious risk to the mother from internal bleeding.  A fetus that has implanted outside the uterus is not viable because it will destroy whatever part of the mother’s body is feebly trying to deliver it nutrients, and because there is as of yet no known technique for transplanting an ectopic or tubal fetus to the uterus to continue a normal pregnancy.  As continuing the pregnancy results in certain death for the fetus and serious medical consequences with a high risk of death for the mother, therapeutic abortion is always recommended in such cases.

A doctor may detect an ectopic or tubal pregnancy before complications set in if a blood test shows abnormal hormone levels for a pregnancy, especially a low level of progesterone.  It can also be detected on an ultrasound when an empty uterus is seen.  An ultrasound is the only way to determine for sure whether the pregnancy is tubal, or a different sort of ectopic pregnancy.

The only real difference between ectopic pregnancies and tubal pregnancies specifically is that tubal pregnancies occur in the fallopian tubes, and the only way to tell which one a woman is experiencing is an ultrasound.