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False Pregnancy: What to Know About Pseudocyesis

Almost every woman of childbearing age may have had a moment where we thought we were pregnant when in reality, we were not. It may have happened because you felt that pregnancy was underway or your period was late by a few days.

Maybe you may have skipped your period and started thinking you were experiencing some signs of pregnancy. You may even have had some signs and symptoms of pregnancy, such as sore breasts or nausea.

But your suspicions or hope were cancelled when you got your period or by taking a test and getting a negative pregnancy test result. Surprisingly, it’s common for most women in their childbearing years to go through this sort of thing several times: a hunch that you may indeed be pregnant and even experience some pregnancy symptoms only to find out later it’s not true.

False pregnancy / Phantom Pregnancy: Causes, Symptoms
False pregnancy / Phantom Pregnancy: Causes, Symptoms

However, there are certain circumstances where a woman may experience more pronounced pregnancy signs and symptoms, including a growing abdomen, missed periods, and even baby kicks.

This phenomenon is known as pseudocyesis, or phantom or false pregnancy.

Even though it’s a rare condition, it can be serious, and a woman may experience many pregnancy symptoms and believe that they are indeed pregnant when they are not pregnant at all.

What Is Pseudocyesis?

Pseudocyesis is different from a mental health disorder. Mental health disorder is usually characterised by pregnancy delusions, commonly found in individuals with psychosis or schizophrenia. Pseudocyesis is usually characterised by a person experiencing physical symptoms when they are not pregnant, even though some psychological mechanisms are involved in the phenomenon of pseudocyesis that may result in some mental health disorder symptoms.

Pseudocyesis is “a false belief that one is pregnant associated with reported symptoms of pregnancy and objective signs, which may include reduced menstrual flow, abdominal enlargement, nausea, breast engorgement and secretions, subjective sensation of fetal movement, and labour pain at the expected delivery date.”

In other words, for a person to be diagnosed as suffering from pseudocyesis, they should not only have false beliefs that they are pregnant, but they should also exhibit physical signs of pregnancy.

How Common Is False Pregnancy?

Pseudocyesis is very rare, according to the Indian Journal of Psychiatry. Even though it occurred in ancient times (Hippocrates described it in 300 B.C.), it is not commonly found in the general population nowadays.

Below are important facts to note about the phenomenon of pseudocyesis:
Out of every 22,000 births, false pregnancy occurs in about 1-6 individuals in the general population.

Africa (Nigeria) has the highest prevalence, with one in every 160 women with infertility problems showing signs of pseudocyesis. In most instances, pseudocyesis occurs in women who have reached childbearing age between 20-44 years. Pseudocyesis rarely occurs in men, known as couvade or “sympathetic pregnancy”. 80% of those who experience pseudocyesis are married. It’s possible to experience pseudocyesis more than one time in your life.

Can you get a positive pregnancy test from a phantom pregnancy?
Can you get a positive pregnancy test from a phantom pregnancy?

False Pregnancy Causes

Experts have not yet found the leading causes of pseudocyesis. It’s often believed to be a psychosomatic condition whereby a person hopes or believes they are pregnant, and their body produces pregnancy-related symptoms.

However, there are certain circumstances where other medical conditions may result in a person experiencing pregnancy symptoms.

Let’s discuss some of the reasons a person may experience pseudocyesis symptoms:

  • A strong desire to get pregnant after a pregnancy loss or miscarriage may result in hormonal imbalance, which may cause pregnancy symptoms to occur.
  • Abdominal distension due to physical factors such as tumours, gas, or weight gain combined with psychological delusions of pregnancy may make women believe they are pregnant.
  • Other hormonal and physical factors, such as uterine/ovarian cysts, growths, pituitary tumours, and the desire to get pregnant, may make a woman experience pseudocyesis.

Other factors that may most likely make a mother experience pseudocyesis are:

  • History of spousal abuse, sexual abuse or trauma
  • Lower socioeconomic status (however, women of all socioeconomic status can experience false pregnancy)
  • History of infertility
  • Multiple pregnancy loss
  • Mental illness or depression

False Pregnancy Symptoms

Pseudocyesis is a condition characterised by the thought and belief that you are indeed pregnant combined with pregnancy symptoms including:

  • Nausea
  • Weight gain
  • Loss of menstrual period
  • Reduced appetite
  • Abdominal distension
  • Sore breasts
  • Morning sickness and vomiting
  • Feelings of contractions and labour pains
  • Sensation and “quickening” of baby kicks
  • Physical changes to areola and nipples

Testing and Diagnosis of Pseudocyesis

The surest way to determine if you are experiencing pseudocyesis is by administering an ultrasound or a pregnancy test. Usually, a pregnancy test will check for the presence and amount of a hormone known as the human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG) in one’s urine or blood. An ultrasound is the surest way to know if you have a pregnancy because it detects the presence or absence of a growing foetus.

If the test shows that a woman who is not pregnant may believe she is pregnant and experiencing pregnancy symptoms, she will be diagnosed with pseudocyesis. Suppose the test is done and it’s confirmed that there is no pregnancy, but there are still other concerning physical symptoms. Further tests must be administered to rule out any other medical issues, such as tumour growth or hormonal imbalances.

Pseudocyesis is rare in most developed countries. When a woman suspects she may be pregnant, she goes to a gynecologist who administers tests to confirm the pregnancy is viable.

However, pseudocyesis is more common among women with psychological disturbances, regardless of their access to gynecological care or socioeconomic status.

Treatment for False Pregnancy

For most people who experience episodes of pseudocyesis, an ultrasound or testing results are usually enough to let them know they’re not pregnant. Their symptoms typically diminish, especially if their pregnancy symptoms are not due to other medical issues.

However, even after doing tests, some people with pseudocyesis are still not convinced that they are not pregnant. If that is the case, they may require the care of a psychologist or psychiatrist. In some cases, psychotherapy combined with psychotropic drugs may be helpful.

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How to help someone with pseudocyesis?

Pseudocyesis is a complex issue; understanding this is key to helping your loved one. It’s important to realise that the person with pseudocyesis usually experiences a strong belief that they are pregnant. It can be challenging to argue with someone experiencing symptoms pregnancy may manifest, such as weight gain.

Unfortunately, if the person strongly believes they are pregnant and tests confirm that they are not, the grief afterwards may be intense. Sometimes it may be almost impossible for you to convince someone experiencing pseudocyesis that they are not pregnant.

You need to be gentle when caring for a loved one experiencing pseudocyesis. In most cases, pseudocyesis results from the trauma of having experienced infertility or losing a pregnancy.

To care for someone experiencing symptoms of pregnancy pseudocyesis, you need to have the compassion to validate their feelings and acknowledge the facts of their situation.

Even though pseudocyesis is treatable and can resolve with time, it’s painful for the person experiencing it and their loved ones. So you must be kind and encourage them to seek professional help if the situation warrants it.

Many support groups are available in Australia, and many have regular meetings in places like local halls, councils and healthcare services. You can get in touch through Beyond Blue AustraliaPregnancy Loss Australia if you need support.

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How to get over a false pregnancy?

It’s normal to feel emotionally crushed if you initially thought you were pregnant and even experience pregnancy symptoms, only to find out later that you were not. You may feel numb and confused; all these reactions are typical of this experience. You may have desired to have a child and believed you were experiencing pregnancy. So you may be going through an intense sense of loss.

If you are diagnosed with false pregnancy, phantom pregnancy, or pseudocyesis, you may feel upset, ashamed, and scared that it happened to you. You may be afraid to seek professional help because you wonder what is wrong with you.

However, it’s a condition that you should not be ashamed of. There are plenty of reasons why you may experience a false pregnancy. It’s essential to explore all the available resources with your doctor and have the necessary medical tests to determine the problem. If your doctor recommends you go for therapy, book an appointment with a counsellor or a therapist. You deserve compassionate care, and your mental health is important right now.

Most of all, know that you’re not alone, and as long as you get proper care within no time, you will feel like yourself again.

False Pregnancy Summary

Even though the exact causes of pseudocyesis are unknown, doctors suspect that physiological factors play a role in tricking the body and mind into thinking you are pregnant. Also, when a woman has an intense desire to get pregnant which may be fueled by repeated miscarriages, impending menopause, or infertility, her body may start producing some pregnancy-related symptoms. If you suspect you are pregnant, the best thing to do is see a doctor to perform pregnancy tests and an ultrasound to confirm your pregnancy.

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Evan Kurzyp

Evan is the founder of Fertility2Family and is passionate about fertility education & providing affordable products to help people in their fertility journey. Evan is a qualified Registered Nurse and has expertise in guiding & managing patients through their fertility journeys.

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