Pseudocyesis: Everything You Need to Know about a False Pregnancy

Sometimes women may go through a common pregnancy experience, though, with one exception. They are not with a child and haven’t been since the symptoms started. Fortunately, such a phenomenon is quite rare. Women start suspecting pregnancy based on such symptoms as morning sickness, swollen breasts, mood swings, fatigue, and even a growing belly. Yet, the main sign of a real pregnancy is missing. These women don’t have fertilized eggs in their wombs. Hence, it’s puzzling what can actually start the aforementioned body changes.

So, how do women’s bodies start believing they are carrying a child, without having one in the uterus? Well, it’s a complicated, rare phenomenon that can have several reasons and explanations.

What Is a False Pregnancy?

In brief, false or phantom pregnancy is an atypical condition when women start experiencing distinct pregnancy symptoms without carrying a child. Yet, a woman’s body starts giving her signals she may be with a child, giving pronounced physical symptoms. Yet, there is no actual reasoning for such transformations. Typically, the roots of such a condition lie in the psychological realm, rather than the physical one.

False pregnancy occurs in about 5 cases per 22,000 births. It’s a pretty rare phenomenon that has also decreased in frequency over the past decades. The drop in rates is probably connected to higher education rates, including open information about reproductive biology and endocrinology. Also, countries with open access to pregnancy tests have fewer cases of phantom pregnancy.

Lastly, cultures that have a woman’s worth directly connected to her reproductive abilities will demonstrate higher rates of the given phenomenon. Hence, everything indicates that the psychosocial and cultural aspects of pseudocyesis are usually the origin of this issue.

What Are the Causes?

There are no clear explanations for developing pseudocyesis. However, the medical community has several theories. First, the intentional delusions of pregnancy, when a woman strongly wishes (or doesn’t wish) to be with a child can be the dominant cause of the following condition. Hence, she may get fixated on this idea, causing her brain and the endocrine system to support her beliefs.

Beyond these causes, women may develop false pregnancies after a recent miscarriage, when they can’t deal with the traumatic experience. In addition, a pregnant woman’s partner, regardless of their sex, may develop a sympathetic pregnancy that imitates all the symptoms the actual pregnant person experiences.

However, sometimes, a false pregnancy can also be linked to depression and similar mental health disorders. The hormonal changes that occur during depressive episodes can trigger chemical reactions related to pregnancy.

Symptoms: the Endocrinology and Physiology of Pseudocyesis

For the most part, a woman may experience many signs of a true pregnancy, except having a fertilized egg in her uterus. In addition, these symptoms can last from several weeks, to the whole term (nine months), or even longer.

Often, an irregular menstrual cycle and delays in periods serve as the inspiration for the pregnancy delusions or the beginning of the phantom pregnancy. The growing abdominal is often the close second symptom women report. Women start believing that belly growth is a sign of a baby bump. This growth, of course, will always have other reasons, like weight gain or the build-up of gas.

In addition, some women may experience more advanced signs of pregnancy including:

  • Sensation of fetal movement;
  • extending belly;
  • lactation;
  • breast changes, including growing in size, swelling, or pigmentation;
  • weight gain;
  • labor pains;
  • false labor;
  • increased pregnancy hormone levels;
  • vomiting;
  • increased appetite.

Most signs occur when a woman’s brain starts to increase prolactin levels and estrogen hormones, also known as pregnancy symptoms. Thus, one’s strong belief or fixation on pregnancy may trick the mind into believing its reality. As a result, these hormones trigger the given changes, making women think of pregnancy, when, in reality, these symptoms are rather psychological than physical.

Is There a Treatment?

There is no particular treatment for this particular phenomenon. After all, a false pregnancy doesn’t affect a woman’s physical state. Hence, there are no medical conditions requiring physical or medical interventions. While experiencing a phantom pregnancy, women remain healthy and well, in need of no treatment or recovery. The only purpose of ‘treatment’ here is to stop the pregnancy symptoms as they have no foundation behind them.

Sometimes, a woman can stop having these symptoms without turning to medical assistance. Her determination or fear of pregnancy can decrease, reducing the symptoms as well. In other cases, a negative pregnancy test should be enough proof to stop the symptoms. However, sometimes, non-pregnant individuals can still receive a positive result on a home test, due to an increase in their human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) levels.

In some cases, though, a woman will need to have a pelvic exam and an ultrasound to see for herself that there is no baby inside her. If the symptoms don’t fade, a woman may benefit from psychological treatment. Also, medications to stabilize a menstrual cycle will also be an advantage.

Bottom Line

Fortunately, a phantom pregnancy is a rather rare condition. Nowadays, it is also very easy to determine a real pregnancy, making it hard to maintain false pregnancy symptoms for too long. However, psychological factors play a dominant role in developing this condition. Hence, prior attention should be paid to the causes of going through such a phenomenon in the first place.

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