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Research finds that almost half of women who suffer a miscarriage or ectopic pregnancy go on to show signs of PTSD

Posted: 11/11/2016

New research conducted by Imperial College London and published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) Open has found that 38% of the women in the study reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) within three months of losing a baby during pregnancy.

This has been the first research that focused on the effects of losing a baby in the early stages of pregnancy. Earlier research, published in the BMJ Open in June 2016, looked at mothers who had suffered a still birth. This research found that mothers who held their stillborn babies were more likely to experience poor mental health symptoms, such as anxiety, than mothers who had suffered a stillbirth but had not held their baby.

Around 25% of pregnancies in the UK end in miscarriage, usually before 12 weeks’ gestation. Ectopic pregnancies (where the baby starts to develop in the fallopian tube rather than in the uterus and so cannot grow) occur less often and affect only just over 1% of pregnancies. Researchers believe that miscarriage rates may increase in future as more women have babies later in life, when the likelihood of miscarriage is greater.

The new study sent questionnaires to 113 UK-based women who had recently experienced a miscarriage or ectopic pregnancy to find out about their thoughts and feelings in the first three months after the event. The findings were compared to a control group of women with ongoing pregnancies.

PTSD is caused by traumatic events and commonly forces sufferers to re-live these events in flashbacks, nightmares or obsessive thoughts. Around four in ten – almost half – of the women who had suffered a miscarriage or ectopic pregnancy reported symptoms of this nature. Many of the women surveyed experienced nightmares and flashbacks to their pregnancy loss, found that they regularly re-lived the feelings they had experienced when they first lost their pregnancy, and had persistent and unwanted thoughts about the loss.

Commonly women reported that they avoided stimuli that reminded them of their miscarriage, such as other pregnant women or new parents. Often, women do not speak openly about their pregnancies until after 12 weeks, so many felt unable to seek advice or comfort when their baby was lost before this point. The effects of the symptoms reported varied; around 40% of women felt that their personal relationships had suffered, while 30% found their symptoms had negatively affected them at work.

Usually, women who give birth are regularly seen, with their babies, at follow-up appointments where mental health issues such as post-natal depression can be identified. While there is currently no similar provision for women who have suffered miscarriage or ectopic pregnancy, the researchers suggested that such women should be screened for worrying mental health symptoms so that support can be provided. Counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy have been shown to have a positive effect on the symptoms of PTSD. Researchers are currently looking into how these therapies can be used specifically for women who have suffered through losing a baby in early pregnancy.

Camilla Wonnacott, associate in the clinical negligence team at Penningtons Manches LLP, said: “The effects of early pregnancy loss on the mother are often not acknowledged by the medical profession while partners, family and friends can find it difficult to offer appropriate support. This new research provides valuable insight into the hidden tragedy of early miscarriage.” 

Pennington Manches LLP commonly advises on claims involving pregnancy mismanagement, including ectopic pregnancies and pregnancies that sadly end in stillbirth. If you, a member of your family or a friend have concerns about negligent care, please contact our specialist team.

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