The signs of pregnancy are there — swelling belly, monthly period temporarily stopping, feeling foetal movements, vomiting, gaining weight — and yet there is no pregnancy.
This might seem odd, but this is a real condition, and somehow it proves what they say, “if your mind can conceive it, your body can achieve it.”
What is a phantom pregnancy?
Phantom pregnancy, also called pseudocyesis, a term coined by John Mason Good from the Greek words pseudes (false) and kyesis (pregnancy) in 1823, is commonly called false pregnancy.
It is when a woman appears to show the signs and symptoms associated with pregnancy, when she is not actually pregnant. She will show many, if not all, of the pregnancy symptoms, including foetal movement, even without the actual foetus.
However, some men also exhibit these pregnancy-like symptoms when their partners are actually pregnant, called couvade syndrome, or sympathetic pregnancy, in which they also experience some of the symptoms and behaviour of their pregnant partner.
In the US, cases of phantom pregnancies have declined over the years. In the 1940s, there is one case in every 250 pregnancies, and now, it is around one to six occurrences for every 22,000 pregnancies.
The average age of the woman is around 33 years old, but there have been reported cases among girls as young as 6 and women as old as 79. Over two-thirds of women who experience phantom pregnancies are married and around one-third have been pregnant at least once.
One famous example of a woman who has had phantom pregnancy is Mary I, former Queen of England from 1516–1558.
Also known as Bloody Mary for her brutal persecution of Protestants, Mary I is one of the well-known cases of phantom pregnancies. In 1555, celebrations filled the air after news that Mary I had given birth to a baby boy — except that there was no baby. It is believed that it could be the queen’s eagerness to have a child, so that the English would have a king again, putting on overwhelming political pressure on her.
Some historians also believe that the doctors who checked Mary I mistook fibroid tumours in her uterus, or molar pregnancy, or ovarian cancer for a pregnancy.
Causes and Symptoms of Phantom Pregnancy
The exact causes of phantom pregnancy are still unknown but one explanation says that it is caused by changes in the endocrine system of the body, which results to the secretion of hormones, causing pregnancy-like physical changes in the body.
However, it is also believed that the mind plays a factor in causing a phantom pregnancy. Doctors guessed that a woman, who is very eager to get pregnant, would send signals to her brain to trick her body into thinking she’s pregnant.
Her brain would misinterpret those signals and would then release hormones (such as oestrogen and prolactin), resulting to actual pregnancy symptoms, such as:
- Menstrual period interruption
- Swelling of the belly
- Enlarged and tender breasts, changes in the nipples, and possibly milk production
- Feeling of foetal movements
- Nausea and vomiting
- Gaining weight
Some researchers said that some of the psychological factors that could trigger phantom pregnancy include infertility, repeated miscarriages, impending menopause, an eagerness to get married, poverty, a lack of education, childhood sexual abuse, or relationship problems.
However, researchers added that phantom pregnancy is different from those claiming to be pregnant when they actually know they aren’t, sometimes called fake pregnancy.
How to test if a woman has a phantom pregnancy
The most effective way to test if a woman has a phantom pregnancy is by consulting with a doctor who will perform pelvic exams and abdominal ultrasound, wherein no baby will be seen thus no heartbeat. Although, the doctor may find that the woman has some of the physical changes that happen during pregnancy such as an enlarged uterus and a softened cervix.
Pregnancy tests using urine will always turn out negative in these cases, however, some medical conditions, such as ectopic pregnancy, morbid obesity and cancer, can produce hormones that are the same as pregnancy hormones, which is why it is still important to go to your doctor to rule out any of these medical conditions if you’re simply having a phantom pregnancy.
How to treat it
Since having a phantom pregnancy generally doesn’t have a direct physical cause, there are no general recommendations in treating the condition with medications. However, the doctor may give the patient some medications for the interruption of her menstrual period.
If the doctor finds that she has a psychological problem, she must be referred to a psychotherapist for necessary treatment, or provide psychological support to help her recover, since having a phantom pregnancy can be very disappointing to the patient.