What Is Pseudocyesis?
Pregnancy can be a joyous occasion for so many families, but we know all too well that "pregnancy" is not synonymous with "baby." One in every four diagnosed pregnancies will end tragically in miscarriage.
Read more about miscarriage.
In very, very rare cases, a woman (or sometimes a man) will believe that she is pregnant, only to learn that her symptoms have been caused by something other than gestation.
Pseudocyesis (also known as hysterical pregnancy, phantom pregnancy or false pregnancy) is a condition in which a person believes that he or she is expecting a child, when he or she is not actually pregnant. Many people who've experienced Pseudocyesis do develop most (sometimes all) symptoms of pregnancy with one notable exception: a fetus or embryo.
Pseudocyesis is a very rare occurrence, affecting 1-6 of every 22,000 live births. While men may also be affected by pseudocyesis, more commonly males experience a condition called "couvade syndrome" (a sympathetic pregnancy) during which the man develops many of the symptoms of their pregnant partners - nausea, backache, food cravings and aversions, and an aching back.
Pseudocyesis, while uncommon, has been well documented throughout history, with Hippocrates providing the first-ever documentation of this condition in 12 women. Mary I, Queen of England, is one of the more well-known sufferers of pseudocyesis and is known to have had two false pregnancies.
What Causes Pseudocyesis?
While the precise cause for pseudocyesis remains a mystery, it's been largely suspected that there are a number of both physical and psychological factors at play when the body "fools" itself into believing that it is gestating.
There are several physical reasons that a person may experience a phantom pregnancy:
It's widely believed among medical professionals that phantom pregnancies tend to stem from an underlying and intense psychological issue. These issues may be:
- Infertility: women who have been unable to conceive naturally may be more prone to pseudocyesis. The intense longing to conceive can cause people who are infertile to believe that they are pregnant.
- Repeated miscarriage or inability to carry a pregnancy to term may also increase the chances for a phantom pregnancy.
- Desire to get married and have children.
- Looming menopause.
The body can play tricks on the mind, producing signs of pregnancy that only further confirms the incorrect belief that the person is, indeed, pregnant.
Other researchers believe that a phantom pregnancy can occur when other factors are present, such as:
It's important to note that having pseudocyesis is not the same as pretending to be pregnant for financial (or other) gains, or delusions of pregnancy seen in people with schizophrenia.
Who Is At Risk For Developing Pseudocyesis?
There are several risk factors associated with pseudocyesis. These risk factors can include (but are not limited to):
- Women who are not generally unstable psychologically, but have extreme emotions regarding pregnancy.
- Women who have lost a child.
- Women who have experienced miscarriage(s).
- Women in their later thirties or early forties who have been trying to conceive without luck.
What Are The Symptoms of Pseudocyesis?
Those who experience pseudocyesis have many of the symptoms associated with pregnancy, which can last only a few weeks to nine months or even several years. These can include:
- Tender, enlarged and swollen breasts
- Swollen abdomen - the abdomen enlarges at the same rate as a normal pregnancy, as it begins to fill with gas and fat
- Amenorrhea (no menstrual period) with or without spotting
- Vomiting and morning sickness
- Sensation of quickening or fetal movement, related to the amount of gas
- Weight gain
- Food cravings and aversions
Rarely, a woman suffering pseudocyesis will visit the doctor or check into the hospital suffering what feels like labor pains.
How Is Pseudocyesis Diagnosed?
To ascertain whether or not a woman is experiencing pseudocyesis, a doctor will assess symptoms, and perform a pelvic examination. A doctor will likely order an ultrasound, as well, which will reveal no fetus and no heartbeat, although the physical symptoms of pregnancy such as uterine enlargement and cervical softening may be present.
It's important to note that even if symptoms are present, a urine pregnancy test will be negative (unless pseudocyesis is caused by cancers that interfere with hormone production and produce similar hormones to pregnancy).
How Is Pseudocyesis Treated?
If a woman has been under the impression that she has been pregnant, especially for months, it is likely to be extremely upsetting to her to learn that she is, in fact, not pregnant. It's of the utmost importance that the woman be treated with kindness and compassion as she hears the bad news.
Any woman who has experienced a false pregnancy should undergo counseling upon learning that she is not pregnant. This can help with much of the shame and embarrassment, as well as the disappointment of learning she is not carrying a fetus.