One in six women who experience miscarriage or ectopic pregnancy can suffer from long-term post-traumatic stress, a study has found.

The study, which is the largest of its kind into the psychological impact of early-stage pregnancy loss, determined that women need more sensitive and specific care after miscarriage or ectopic pregnancy (where an embryo starts to grow outside of the womb and is not viable).

Researchers at Imperial College London and KU Leven in Belgium studied over 650 women who had experienced an early pregnancy loss. Nearly a third of the women studied (29 per cent) suffered post-traumatic stress one month following the pregnancy loss and 24 per cent suffered moderate to severe anxiety. One in 10 of the women studied had moderate to severe depression following the loss.

Nine months after the pregnancy loss, 18 per cent of the women had post-traumatic stress, 17 per cent had moderate to severe anxiety and six per cent had moderate to severe depression.

The women who experienced post-traumatic stress reported re-experiencing the feelings associated with the pregnancy loss, suffering from intrusive or unwanted thoughts about their miscarriage. Some women also reported having nightmares or flashbacks, while others avoided anything that might remind them of their loss.

Professor Tom Bourne, lead author of the 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.”

Professor Bourne adds that the treatment women receive following an early pregnancy loss ‘must change’ to reflect its psychological impact.

He added: “Recent efforts to encourage people to talk more openly about this very common issue are a step in the right direction. Whilst general support and counselling will help many women, those with significant post-traumatic stress symptoms require specific treatment if they are going to recover fully. This is not widely available, and we need to consider screening women following an early pregnancy loss so we can identify those who most need help.”

In the UK, one in four pregnancies end in miscarriage, most before 12 weeks. This adds up to over 250,000 miscarriages in the UK each year and 11,000 emergency admissions for ectopic pregnancies.

Dr Jessica Farren, first author of the research from Imperial, and Obstetrician and Gynaecologist, said: “Post-traumatic stress can have a toxic effect on all elements of a person’s life – affecting work, home and relationships.”

“We have made significant progress in recent years in breaking the silence around mental health issues in pregnancy and postnatally, but early pregnancy losses are still shrouded in secrecy, with very little acknowledgement of how distressing and profound an event they are. We also know partners can suffer psychological distress following miscarriage or ectopic pregnancy, and are investigating this in ongoing research.”

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