Ectopic Pregnancy Clinical Presentation

Updated: Jun 23, 2022
  • Author: Vicken P Sepilian, MD, MSc; Chief Editor: Michel E Rivlin, MD  more...
  • Print


The classic clinical triad of ectopic pregnancy is pain, amenorrhea, and vaginal bleeding; unfortunately, only about 50% of patients present with all 3 symptoms. About 40-50% of patients with an ectopic pregnancy present with vaginal bleeding, 50% have a palpable adnexal mass, and 75% may have abdominal tenderness. In one case series of ectopic pregnancies, abdominal pain presented in 98.6% of patients, amenorrhea in 74.1% of them, and irregular vaginal bleeding in 56.4% of patients. [49]

These symptoms overlap with those of spontaneous abortion; a prospective, consecutive case series found no statistically significant differences in the presenting symptoms of patients with unruptured ectopic pregnancies versus those with intrauterine pregnancies. [50]

In first-trimester symptomatic patients, pain as the presenting symptom is associated with an odds ratio of 1.42, and moderate to severe vaginal bleeding at presentation is associated with an odds ratio of 1.42 for ectopic pregnancy. [51] In one study, 9% of patients with ectopic pregnancy presented with painless vaginal bleeding. [52] As a result, almost 50% of cases of ectopic pregnancy are not diagnosed at the first prenatal visit.

Patients may present with other symptoms common to early pregnancy, including nausea, breast fullness, fatigue, low abdominal pain, heavy cramping, shoulder pain, and recent dyspareunia. Painful fetal movements (in the case of advanced abdominal pregnancy), dizziness or weakness, fever, flulike symptoms, vomiting, syncope, or cardiac arrest have also been reported. Shoulder pain may be reflective of peritoneal irritation.

Astute clinicians should have a high index of suspicion for ectopic pregnancy in any woman who presents with these symptoms and who presents with physical findings of pelvic tenderness, enlarged uterus, adnexal mass, or tenderness.

Approximately 20% of patients with ectopic pregnancies are hemodynamically compromised at initial presentation, which is highly suggestive of rupture. Fortunately, using modern diagnostic techniques, most ectopic pregnancies may be diagnosed before rupture.


Physical Examination

The physical examination of patients with ectopic pregnancy is highly variable and often unhelpful. Patients frequently present with benign examination findings, and adnexal masses are rarely found. Patients in hemorrhagic shock from ruptured ectopic may not be tachycardic. [53]

Some physical findings that have been found to be predictive (although not diagnostic) for ectopic pregnancy include the following:

  • Presence of peritoneal signs

  • Cervical motion tenderness

  • Unilateral or bilateral abdominal or pelvic tenderness - Usually much worse on the affected side

Abdominal rigidity, involuntary guarding, and severe tenderness, as well as evidence of hypovolemic shock, such as orthostatic blood pressure changes and tachycardia, should alert the clinician to a surgical emergency; this may occur in up to 20% of cases. However, midline abdominal tenderness or a uterine size of greater than 8 weeks on pelvic examination decreases the risk of ectopic pregnancy. [54]

On pelvic examination, the uterus may be slightly enlarged and soft, and uterine or cervical motion tenderness may suggest peritoneal inflammation. An adnexal mass may be palpated but is usually difficult to differentiate from the ipsilateral ovary.

The presence of uterine contents in the vagina, which can be caused by shedding of endometrial lining stimulated by an ectopic pregnancy, may lead to a misdiagnosis of an incomplete or complete abortion and therefore a delayed or missed diagnosis of ectopic pregnancy.