Miscarriage and ectopic pregnancy may trigger post-traumatic stress, research suggests

  • Video report by ITV News Correspondent Rebecca Barry

Around 18% of women experience post-traumatic stress after a miscarriage or ectopic pregnancy, new research suggests.

The study looked at the psychological impact of 653 women who had experienced early-stage pregnancy loss.

The majority had suffered an early miscarriage - defined as a pregnancy loss before 12 weeks, or an ectopic pregnancy.

Published in the journal American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, the study found that one month after pregnancy loss 29% suffered post-traumatic stress.

After nine months, 18% of women had post-traumatic stress - there symptoms included nightmares and flashbacks.

After nine months, 18% of women had post-traumatic stress, researchers found. Credit: Imperial College London

Almost a quarter (24%) experienced moderate to severe anxiety, and one in nine (11%) had moderate to severe depression.

Scientists at Imperial College London and KU Leuven in Belgium said it is the largest ever study to look at the psychological impact.

One in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage, and estimates suggest there are 250,000 miscarriages every year in the UK, and around 11,000 emergency admissions for ectopic pregnancies.

Participants who met the criteria for post-traumatic stress reported regularly re-experiencing the feelings associated with the pregnancy loss, and suffering intrusive or unwanted thoughts about their miscarriage.

Almost a quarter (24%) experienced moderate to severe anxiety. Credit: PA

They were asked to complete questionnaires about their emotions and behaviour one month after pregnancy loss, then again three and nine months later.

Their responses were compared to 171 women who had healthy pregnancies.

According to the results, the psychological symptoms of women with healthy pregnancies were significantly lower than in women who had suffered early pregnancy loss.

The women in the study attended the Early Pregnancy Assessment Units at three London hospitals – Queen Charlotte’s and Chelsea, St Mary’s, and Chelsea and Westminster.

Kate Mulley, from Sands Charity, which supports people through pregnancy and baby loss, told ITV News many women lose "their hopes and dreams" and often feel quite isolated after a miscarriage.

She said: "For many parents I guess or women, what they are experiencing is a very sudden and traumatic loss, all of their hopes and dreams for that pregnancy and quiet often they're feeling extremely isolated and quite often their feelings are not acknowledged or they're minimised, they're left to feel they need to cope on their own or they just need to get over this and that is not helpful."

Ms Mulley added: "I think this research is so important to demonstrate that for a sizeable minority of those women, they are going to spend on specialist support in order to work through this experience."

When asked what support there is for women who have gone through a miscarriage, Ms Mulley said: "There has been some recent work in the health service to have a more sensitive response and of course there are charities and helplines that are out there."

Researchers looked at the psychological impact of early-stage pregnancy loss. Credit: ITV News Graphics

Professor Tom Bourne, lead author of the research from Tommy’s National Centre for Miscarriage Research at Imperial College London, said: "Pregnancy loss affects up to one in two women, and for many women it will be the most traumatic event in their life.

"This research suggests the loss of a longed-for child can leave a lasting legacy, and result in a woman still suffering post-traumatic stress nearly a year after her pregnancy loss."

He added: "The treatment women receive following early pregnancy loss must change to reflect its psychological impact, and recent efforts to encourage people to talk more openly about this very common issue are a step in the right direction."

The authors used a questionnaire for screening, but formal diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder would require a clinical interview.

They add that women who were already experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress and depression may have been more likely to respond to the questionnaire.

This could mean the number of women suffering psychological symptoms may appear higher.