A woman’s intuition is a funny thing. Most women know they are pregnant before they are even far enough along to take a test; we know our bodies and when something is different we can just feel it. What about a phantom pregnancy? There are times when even a woman’s intuition is off and our body tells us we are pregnant when in fact, we are not. This is a phenomenon called Pseudocyesis or a false pregnancy.
What Exactly Is Pseudocyesis or a False Pregnancy?
Pseudocyesis is the medical term for a false pregnancy or what some people refer to as a phantom pregnancy. False pregnancy is characterized by the typical pregnancy symptoms including weight gain, growing belly, morning sickness, irritability, and backache; all the signs of being pregnant without carrying an actual baby.
Contrary to what many people believe, false pregnancy is not only found in women but men as well. When a man suffers a false pregnancy, it is usually called Sympathetic Pregnancy.
This is more common when his significant other is pregnant and is dealing with the normal aches and pains that are associated with pregnancy. The medical term when men experience this is called Couvade.
What Causes Pseudocyesis?
Pseudocyesis is extremely rare in both men and women so doctors are still trying to piece together the root cause of the condition. Some believe the cause is physical while others believe it is psychological.
Some believe that the cause comes from trauma, either a physical or mental trauma, while others believe it is a chemical imbalance.
Issues that may create a false pregnancy or Pseudocyesis include:
- Miscarriage (usually more than one)
- Loss of a child
- Mental breakdown
In addition, there are also real physical causes as well which include ovarian tumors and a chemical imbalance in the brain that in a way “tricks” the body into thinking it is pregnant.
Out of all of the causes listed above, the most common documented cause is simple – a woman wants to get pregnant so badly that she mentally convinces herself that she is pregnant. There are many reasons why she is not getting pregnant including infertility or simply coming up to menopause.
In fact, many women about to enter menopause will go through some form of depression that can lead to a false pregnancy.
When a woman suffers from pseudocyesis, she will develop just as she would during a regular pregnancy; starting out with things like morning sickness and frequency in urination and then it will develop into swollen and sore breasts and eventually into a swollen belly and the look of being pregnant. The only real difference is that there is no real baby and no labor, but possibly the feel of being in labor.
There are also cases where it has been shown that patients who suffer from this condition have also experienced some kind of sexual abuse, poverty or other type of emotional trauma. Creating a pregnancy is their brain’s way of coping with the experience.
Signs of Pseudocyesis or a False Pregnancy
Most women who suffer from a false pregnancy truly believe they are pregnant because they experience the same pregnancy symptoms. The signs of false pregnancy are the same as a typical pregnancy.
Pseudocyesis or False Pregnancy Symptoms:
- missed periods
- swollen belly
- weight gain
- frequent urination
- changes in skin and hair
- swollen breasts
- sensations of fetal movement and contractions
- morning sickness
Additionally, just being generally uncomfortable is also a very common symptom. The only way to ensure they are not actually pregnant is to run tests and complete a physical examination. It is important to remember that a false pregnancy differs greatly from a false pregnancy test.
Tests For Pseudocyesis or False Pregnancy
Since Pseudocyesis mimics every detail of pregnancy, it is important that a doctor ensures that it is actually a fake pregnancy and not a real one. The same tests to confirm an actual pregnancy are done to diagnose a false pregnancy.
These tests start with a physical exam including a pelvic exam to determine if there has been any type of conception. Then a urinalysis is completed to verify the findings. A urinalysis will usually come back negative unless the woman is suffering from an illness like a very rare cancer that releases the same hormones as pregnancy.
Ultrasound is another test that will determine if a pregnancy is true or false. This will show, in the event of a false pregnancy that there is no fetus but in some severe cases, the ultrasound may show a softening of the cervix, just as it would in a true pregnancy.
An ultrasound is the only test that will 100% disprove or prove a pregnancy.
How To Treat a False Pregnancy or Pseudocyesis
Pregnancy, whether true or false, is an exciting time for an expectant mother. For those who really are pregnant, they enjoy the 9 months they have to bond with their unborn baby, prepare a nursery and get ready to become a parent.
That said, those who think and feel like they are pregnant are also feeling that same excitement for the next 9 months and beyond. They are looking forward to raising their baby in their home – watching him or her have their first bath, take their first steps and grow like a typical kid.
Now she is about to find out that what she is feeling, what she is looking forward to, is not going to happen. It is all in her head. Now imagine being the bearer of this news and attempting to treat her; knowing that she had this excitement built up just to have it crushed.
Treating a false pregnancy is very difficult since it is a delicate situation, it is not necessarily a medical problem but more psychological where symptoms can last anywhere from a few weeks to the whole 9 months, to even years.
After a doctor has proven for a fact that this is indeed a false pregnancy, they will then conduct some psychological exams to ensure that there is no underlying psychological or neurological condition. After this, they will provide psychological therapy and emotional support as these are the only way to treat pseudocyesis.
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Compiled using information from the following sources:
1. Datta, S., ed., Anesthetic and Obstetric Management of High-Risk Pregnancy, third ed., New York, Springer, 2004.
2. Tarin JJ, et al. 2013. Endocrinology and physiology of pseudocyesis. Reproductive Biology and Endocrinology 11(1):39.
3. Gabbe S.G., Niebyl, J.R., Simpson, J.L., eds. Obstetrics: Normal and Problem Pregnancies, fifth ed., Philadelphia, Churchill Livingstone Elsevier; 2007.