For most of us, it is difficult to understand how a woman can suffer from a phantom pregnancy. Technically known as pseudocyesis, this disorder is a genuine medical condition that has mystified physicians since it was first recorded by the ancient Greeks.
Affecting women, younger girls, and even the elderly, there is no definite demographic group that suffers from phantom pregnancies the only thing that most of these women have in common is an intense desire to be pregnant.
This desire is so strong that they actually begin to convince themselves and their bodies that they are expecting a baby. This results in some, many or all of the physical signs of pregnancy. These symptoms are so real and so persuasive that when a group of doctors who had treated women with pseudocyesis was surveyed an incredible 18% said they had physically examined their patient and believed she was pregnant.
What does a phantom pregnancy look like? Who is most likely to suffer from this condition?
How can a woman's body convince her she is pregnant so convincingly that almost 20% of physicians with a pseudocyesis patient have initially diagnosed them as being pregnant? What happens when a phantom pregnancy is discovered? Read on to learn everything you need to know.
15 Genuinely Expectant But Not Genuinely Expecting
For a woman to be diagnosed as suffering from a phantom pregnancy, she must actually believe she is pregnant. This is a very different situation from someone who is claiming to be pregnant but knows they are not. In the second example, a woman may wish to convince friends, family or a partner that she is pregnant and fake the symptoms. The person with an intentionally phony pregnancy will hide the fact they are having periods, suffer from fictitious morning sickness and even go as far as to use a prosthetic baby bump.
A woman who has a phantom pregnancy will have genuine morning sickness, her periods will stop, and her body will behave precisely as it would if she was actually carrying a baby. For this reason, the sufferer will genuinely think she is pregnant and is not in any way attempting to be deceptive.
14 Not Just For The Girls
The human mind is a powerful thing, and it is not only women who can experience the symptoms of pregnancy without actually being with child. Many men have been documented as suffering from the same, and in some cases even worse, symptoms their partner is experiencing during her pregnancy.
Often referred to as a sympathetic pregnancy the medical term for this situation is Couvade Syndrome. Some physicians debate whether this should be treated as a purely mental illness, as a physical syndrome or as a combination of both. Doctors have seen and documented changes in prolactin, testosterone, estradiol, and cortisol levels in men suffering from phantom pregnancy so the physical impacts can be very real. It is just a case of deciding which came first, the change in hormone levels or the stress and anxiety over impending fatherhood that is thought to cause many cases.
13 An Initial Idea
A phantom pregnancy does not just randomly appear one day. The woman suffering from pseudocyesis does not suddenly wake up one morning with an inflated abdomen, swollen ankles and rush to the bathroom to throw up.
The symptoms appear gradually in the same way those of a genuine pregnancy do. The first sign might be a disruption of the menstrual cycle, either lighter periods that become further and further apart before stopping or an abrupt end to periods. Just as any woman might, the sufferer will begin to wonder if she is pregnant and might wait and see what happens or if she is in a hurry to find out she might take a pregnancy test.
On some occasions, it is possible that a false positive might be obtained on the test. Either the woman may have a medical condition that upsets her hormones or she may have been in the very early stages of pregnancy but has miscarried before she realized.
12 All Of The Pain None Of The Gain
In the same way, a woman who is genuinely pregnant will slowly begin to show symptoms, so too will a woman with a phantom pregnancy. In the early stages, there will be morning sickness which can be severe and last all day. The woman's breasts will begin to grow bigger, her nipples will darken and enlarge, and she may even start to produce milk.
The pregnancy belly will slowly begin to appear and interestingly women who have not had a baby tend to have a higher, smaller bump, and those who already have children tend to have lower, more significant bumps, just as would happen if the pregnancy were real.
Weight gain will also likely follow the “correct” timetable for the stage of pregnancy with gains increasing proportionately as time progresses.
11 Right To The Finish Line
While many phantom pregnancies are discovered at a relatively early stage, it is not unknown for a woman to arrive in the maternity ward experiencing labor pains. Even experienced doctors have been known to see a heavily pregnant woman obviously in labor and send her quickly to the hospital only to discover when the patient is examined correctly that she is not pregnant at all.
Women with phantom pregnancies have reported fetal movements and when examined have been discovered to have an enlarged uterus and a softened cervix.
Common late pregnancy complaints such as an inability to sleep comfortably, hip pains, and general aches and pains all over are experienced. In extreme circumstances, woman have begun to suffer from pregnancy complications such as preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, and even Braxton-Hicks contractions.
10 Three Things Missing
In some cases, there are only three pregnancy indicators that are absent. Upon examination, there are no sounds from the fetus. No heartbeat can be detected, and there are none of the other background sounds you sometimes hear during an ultrasound when the baby moves.
Secondly, there is no baby on an ultrasound. This is often the first indication that a woman is experiencing a phantom pregnancy and if she hasn’t had an early dating ultrasound, it may not be until eighteen or twenty weeks that this is discovered.
Finally, there is, for obvious reasons, no delivery. Even the most profoundly affected woman cannot create a fetus through the power of the mind. In some areas of the world, where ultrasounds are not available or infrequently used, a woman can suffer severe psychological trauma having gone through her pregnancy and discovering that there is, in fact, no child.
9 It’s Nothing New
The phenomenon of phantom pregnancy is not a new one. The first known written record was by Hippocrates who recorded 12 cases of women with phantom pregnancies in around 300 BC.
In England in the sixteenth century, Mary I, Queen of England is believed by some historians to have suffered from two phantom pregnancies. In September 1554, Mary's periods stopped. She began gaining weight and suffered from morning sickness. The entire royal court, including her doctors, believed she was pregnant, and the baby was expected in late April or early May. Mary’s symptoms continued until July 1555 when her abdomen finally started to deflate, and it became apparent there was no baby.
It is thought that her desperate desire to have a baby before it was too late was responsible for her phantom pregnancy.
8 Fewer False Fetuses
As time has passed, phantom pregnancies have become less frequent in the developed world, and there are two theories as to why this is so.
The first theory is medical advances. Before ultrasounds and fetal heart monitors, women had to rely on the other symptoms of their pregnancy to confirm they were with child. This meant that women who were in the early stages of a phantom pregnancy would have had no way of knowing it was not real.
The second theory is social. It is thought that in times when a woman's role was considered to be to stay home, look after the house and have children, women who were not getting pregnant might fulfill their role through unconsciously creating the symptoms of pregnancy. Today women do not have their worth tied to child baring in the same way, and so there are fewer women so desperate that a phantom pregnancy ensues.
7 Some Are Partly Physical
Some women may experience the symptoms of a false pregnancy even though they have no particular wish or desire to actually have a child. These cases are often discovered to be as a result of a physical condition that is upsetting the hormonal balances in the body.
There are some conditions that can cause a false positive on a pregnancy test as well as mimic the early symptoms of pregnancy. These include, but are not limited to, ovarian cysts, particularly corpus luteum cysts, some forms of ovarian cancer, and in very rare cases a disorder of the pituitary gland.
The pituitary gland is a tiny pea-sized organ at the base of the brain that is responsible for the secretion of certain hormones such as prolactin, which is responsible for stimulating milk production. The pituitary also sends signals to other organs to produce hormones so if something goes wrong with the central control system, it can cause false pregnancy symptoms.
6 Some Are Purely Psychological
By far the most significant number of phantom pregnancies have psychological causes. Sometimes a woman who is under extreme stress or suffering from depression can experience changes to her endocrine system which will result in the symptoms of a false pregnancy. It does not matter if she wants to be pregnant or not; the physical signs will all be there and be so convincing the patient will genuinely believe she is pregnant.
The other group of women who suffer from pseudocyesis is those who are either desperately longing to become pregnant, scared they are growing too old to become pregnant or wanting to become more involved in the pregnancy of a friend or loved one. These last three groups may be conscious of their wishes, or they may not even realize that somewhere, deep down in their psyche they feel the need to be pregnant.
5 Who Wishes So Hard?
It would be easy to assume that there is a particular type of woman who would be more vulnerable to suffering from a phantom pregnancy. Maybe you would imagine a younger, less educated woman who has nothing else in her life and longs to fill her emptiness with a baby. She would not yet have any children, and she would be unaware of what an actual pregnancy looks and feels like.
If that is what you imagine, you would be wrong. There is no particular demographic that sufferers from this condition than any other; married women with children, grandmothers going through the menopause, well educated, intelligent women who are genuinely under the impression they are carrying a child. These women are not setting out to deceive, and there is no ulterior motive.
4 Different To Delusions
A phantom pregnancy is very different to delusions of pregnancy. A woman who is suffering from pseudocyesis will show physical and emotional signs she is pregnant and, even upon examination by an experienced doctor, will appear to all intents and purposes to be carrying a baby.
A woman who is suffering delusions of pregnancy will not have any physical symptoms. A patient with this condition will have ridiculous stories to explain how she became pregnant and why she has no signs of pregnancy. Many records exist of women who, when asked how they became pregnant without having sex, told their doctors their were impregnated in their sleep with a test tube baby, made pregnant by aliens and in one case used by her doctor as an experiment. These are delusions and not the same as pseudocyesis.
3 Tender Truths
Doctors who discover that one of their patients is suffering from a phantom pregnancy have to tread very carefully when breaking the news to them. Usually, the woman concerned will be profoundly mentally and psychologically invested in her pregnancy, and the news that there is no baby will come as a shocking blow.
As well as the knowledge that she is no longer going to have the baby she has been looking forward to, the woman will have the confusion of knowing her body has deceived her. On top of all of this, there are social worries over how she is going to tell her friends and family that she is not and never was pregnant in the first place.
With this in mind, a physician has to let their patient know there is no baby gently and with compassion.
2 What To Expect When Not Expecting
For a woman who has discovered she has been suffering from a phantom pregnancy, there are a number of medical investigations that must take place to exclude any physical causes such as ovarian cancer or cysts. In addition to these tests, a patient has to be evaluated for illnesses such as depression, extreme stress or other mental conditions that could cause a change in hormone levels.
If any of these causes are found to be responsible, the woman is treated for the physical and given emotional and psychological support to recover from her pseudocyesis.
If it turns out that the cause was a deep-rooted psychological one, the woman will need extensive mental health treatment to deal with the fall out of having a phantom pregnancy and the underlying causes of her condition.
1 Some Women Can’t Be Helped
In rare cases, a woman with a phantom pregnancy cannot be helped. Some are so deeply entangled in their condition that they cannot bear to let go of it. They see an ultrasound that doesn’t have a baby, and they leave the doctor's office never to return. So real are the physical signs that some women convince themselves their physician must be wrong and go from doctor to doctor, unable to believe the baby is not there.
Other women have been known to be confronted with the evidence of their phantom pregnancy, go home and leave their life completely so they can go elsewhere and start again with a new partner and a new phantom pregnancy. These women are the ones who straddle the line between both phantom pregnancy and delusional pregnancy.
Sources : webmd.com, nytimes.com, americanpregnancy.org, irishhealth.com, healthline.com, psychologytoday.com