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In this episode on Vaginal Bleeding in Early Pregnancy Dr. David Dushenski & Dr. Ross Claybo run through the key clinical pearls of the history, the physical, interpretation of the BhCG and the value of serum progesterone in working up these patients. The newest on point of care ultrasound (POCUS) is discussed in the patient with vaginal bleeding in early pregnancy. The various types of spontaneous abortion including septic abortion are reviewed as well as the management of the unstable patient with massive vaginal hemorrhage. Ectopic pregnancy, in all it’s various presentations is reviewed with particular attention to the most common pitfalls and how to avoid them.

Cite this podcast as: Dushenski, D, Claybo, R, Helman, A. Vaginal Bleeding in Early Pregnancy. Emergency Medicine Cases. May, 2012. Accessed [date].


Differential Diagnosis for vaginal bleeding in early pregnancy

  • Ectopic pregnancy
  • Threatened/spontaneous abortion
  • Anembryonic pregnancy
  • Non obstetrical causes (vaginal laceration, neoplastic polyps, fibroids)
  • Gestational trophoblastic disease

History for Vaginal Bleeding in Early Pregnancy

  • degree and duration of bleeding,
  • is the pain lateral or central,
  • history of trauma,
  • obstetric and fertility history, bleeding disorders, infections,
  • previous miscarriage history

Anembryonic Pregnancy

  • Fertilized ovum that does not develop into a normal embryo.
  • Presents with bleeding in 1st trimester & ultrasound showing a gestational sac without visualization of yolk sac or embryo at appropriate sizes.
  • Management is similar to a missed abortion (see below) once ectopic is ruled out.

When is βhCG Testing Useful in Vaginal Bleeding

    • βhCG levels become positive 8-11 days after conception
    • Levels peak at 10-12 weeks, then gradually decrease.
    • **Test all women of child-bearing age regardless of history suggesting possibility of pregnancy (1,2).**
    • Urine βhCG becomes positive 1 week later than serum tests, and may be falsely negative if urine is very dilute

Is there value of serum progesterone in vaginal bleeding in early pregnancy?

Progesterone may identify patients who have high likelihood of viable intrauterine pregnancy (levels > 22ng/mL), and patients who likely have a nonviable pregnancy (levels < 5ng/mL)(3) – however, our experts believe it does not significantly change practice enough to warrant its use in the ED

Key βhCG facts to remember

  • At expected time of missed menses: 2000 IU/mL
  • IUP visible by transvaginal ultrasound: >1500 IU/mL
  • IUP visible by abdominal ultrasound: >3000 IU/mL
  • Cardiac activity visible on ultrasound: >1500 IU/mL by transvaginal, >6500 IU/mL by abdominal
  • βhCG doubling time = 48-72 hours
  • Levels become undetectable at 3-4 weeks postpartum

Spontaneous Abortion

  • Threatened:bleeding with closed cervix and no evidence of fetal demise on ultrasound (U/S)
    • Risk of complete abortion is 50%, but if fetal heart rate seen (possible at >7 weeks), risk decreases to ~5%
  • Inevitable:open cervix, products of conception not yet expelled
    • Almost all progress to complete
  • Incomplete: products of conception not completely expelled, based on U/S or exam
  • Compete:All products expelled from uterus, bleeding usually minimal, and os closed
  • Missed: U/S shows fetal demise, but products remain in uterus, with or without bleeding or symptoms
  • Septic:rare result of pelvic instrumentation (esp. non sterile conditions), may be mistaken as PID

How should we manage stable patients with abortion?

  • Management options are expectant management, medical management (misoprostol 800mg inserted vaginally encourages passage of products), and surgical management (D&C).


Update 2018: A randomized trial of 300 women with confirmed first trimester pregnancy loss, showed higher rates of complete expulsion at day 8 with combination mifepristone (200 mg po) and misoprostol (800mcg pv 24 hours later) compared to misoprostol (800 mcg pv) alone, (NNT=6). Abstract

  • Counseling in the ED must also address psychological concerns:
    1. use sensitivity and empathy,
    2. acknowledge distress and grief,
    3. reassure the patient that neither she nor her partner did anything to cause the miscarriage, and
    4. there is no increased risk for future miscarriages (if < 3 have occurred).

What is the value of the pelvic examination in stable patients with vaginal bleeding in early pregnancy?

  • If ultrasound findings are available and reassuring, our experts suggest a pelvic exam may be deferred.
  • However, if high quality ultrasound is not available, or not definitive & reassuring, a pelvic exam is required to assess the uterus and adnexae.
  • The pelvic exam is also an opportunity for STI screening.

What about unstable patients with abortion and bleeding?

  • Manage similar to all unstable bleeding patients (resus room, monitors, vascular access, IV fluid +/- unmatched O neg blood, foley).
  • Investigate for DIC, and urgently consult OB/GYN.
  • Tranexamic acid (1g IV) +/- oxytocin (40U by IV in 1L NS at 150cc/hour) can be given to slow bleeding before definitive management (in the OR).
  • **In an unstable patient with massive vaginal bleeding, a pelvic exam is indicated to identify a source and to look for and extract tissue found in the cervix.**

Ectopic Pregnancy

  • Only 50% of patients have classic risk factors (past history of ectopic, tubal surgery, tubal ligation, infertility treatment, or PID).
  • The classic triad of abdominal pain (80–90%), missed menses 4–12 wks after LMP (75–90%) & vaginal bleeding (50–80%) is NOT sensitive. Up to 25% lack the full triad, and 10% may have no symptoms.
  • Consider ectopic when a patient presents with syncope and has a positive BhCG.
  • Vital signs may be falsely reassuring in ectopic pregnancy: Patients with ectopics often have normal vital signs, even with significant bleeding, and may have a reflex bradycardia caused by a vagal response to intraperitoneal blood (4).
  • Physicalexaminationfindings in ectopic pregnancy (5):
    1. Abdominal tenderness (80-90%)
    2. Adnexal tenderness (75-90%)
    3. Adnexal mass (50%)
    4. Uterine enlargement (25%)
    5. Orthostasis (10%)
  • Pelvic exams can be completely normal.
  • Serial BhCG measurement is most useful to confirm fetal viability (BhCG should rise at least 66% over 48hrs) rather than to identify ectopic pregnancy.
    • However if the BhCG >50,000, ectopic is very unlikely.
  • Bedside ED Ultrasound (POCUS):
    • ED U/S for ectopic is very specific for ruling out ectopic (6), and involves looking for intrauterine pregnancy (IUP), and free fluid in the pelvis and abdomen.
    • To confirm an IUP by U/S, a decidual reaction with a gestational sac and yolk sac (+/- fetal pole) must be seen *within* the uterus.
    • Even if an IUP is seen, if the patient is unstable with free fluid in the abdomen, it may be a ruptured cyst or a “heterotopic”!

For practical tips on picking up Ectopic Pregnancy on POCUS visit the EDEblog

  • When to give Rhogam:
    • Give Anti- D immunoglobulin to non sensitized Rh- D negative women to prevent development of RhD antibodies.
    • It should be given as soon as possible after the immunizing event (within 72 hours) and effects last for 12 weeks.
  • Treatment options for ectopic pregnancy
    • Expectant: in stable patients with a BhCG below 200 and not increasing, >75% will resolve spontaneously.
      • Close monitoring is needed until BhCG <15.
    • Methotrexate (MTX): MTX is a folic acid antagonist that is up to 95% effective in appropriate patients (BhCG <5000, no fetal cardiac activity, ectopic mass <3–4cm, hemodynamically stable, no sign of rupture, reliable patient.)
      • Failure of MTX is related to BhCG level: Failure rates are approx. 15% with BhCG >5000 and 5% with BhCG <5000.
      • Prior to MTX treatment, blood tests must confirm normal liver and kidney function, and patients must be counseled to avoid folic acid and alcohol. Strenuous exercise and intercourse must also be avoided due to the risk of tubal rupture. Patients must also discontinue folic acid supplementation.
    • Surgical:for patients who do not qualify for or have failed other management, or patients who have intra- abdominal bleeding or are unstable, surgical management is indicated.
  • If a patient who received MTX returns with abdominal pain:
    • Abdominal pain is a common side effect of MTX treatment, but may indicate tube rupture (occurs in 4% of patients, usually 2 weeks after MTX treatment).
    • Patients need a full workup for ectopic rupture: hematocrit, BhCG, and ultrasound to look for bleeding.
    • If there are any signs of rupture, urgent OB consult is needed.
    • **Due to the risk of tubal rupture, do not do a pelvic exam on a patient who has had MTX treatment and presents with pain or vaginal bleeding,. Begin workup for ectopic rupture and consult OB/GYN.**
  • AVOID these major pitfalls of diagnosing ectopic pregnancy in the emergency department:
    • assuming low BhCG rules out ectopic
    • relying on the “classic triad”
    • relying on inexperienced ultrasonographer or non-hospital ultrasound lab reports
    • assuming no products of conception seen on U/S means it was a complete abortion (and not an ectopic)
    • failure to appreciate degree of blood loss
    • failure to consider heterotopic* if unstable and IUP seen on U/S
      • *heterotopic risk of 1 in 30,000 pregnancies rises to 1 in 100 if the patient is receiving fertility treatments
    • failure to assure adequate follow up if no IUP is seen or if the ultrasound is indeterminate

Molar Pregnancy

  • What is a molar pregnancy:
    • Molar pregnancies are tumors from abnormal fertilization of an ovum, with overproliferation of trophoblastic tissue. A complete mole has no fetal tissue, while an incomplete mole has abnormal fetal tissue.
  • Most common presentation is vaginal bleeding, but they can present with ovarian torsion due to generation of reactive cysts.
  • The uterus will be larger than dates, and ultrasound may show a “snowstorm” appearance. Ultrasound is not sensitive for molar pregnancy in first trimester.
  • Patients may present with preeclampsia and/or hyperthyroid symptoms due to very high BhCG levels (>100,000).

Treatment is surgery, and includes a workup for metastatic disease.

  • 15–20% of complete molar pregnancies and 2% of incomplete

  More on Vaginal Bleeding on EM Cases:
          Episode 7: Medical and Surgical Emergencies in Pregnancy
          Best Case Ever 9 Vaginal Bleeding in Early Pregnancy
          BCE 68 Ectopic Pregnancy Pitfalls in Diagnosis
          Rapid Reviews Videos on First Trimester Bleeding and Ectopic Pregnancy

Key References

1. Minnerop et al.Am J Emerg Med. 2011; 29:212

2. Ramoska et al.Ann Emerg Med. 1989;18:48

3. Buckley et al.Ann Emerg Med. 2000;36:95

4. Hick et al.Am J Emerg Med. 2001;19:488

5. Dart et al.Ann Emerg Med. 1999;33(3):283

6. Stein et al.Ann Emerg Med. 2010;56(6):674