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The Mysterious "Phantom Pregnancies"

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When I tried to get pregnant with my second baby, I was very fortunate. After my husband and I had been trying for just three months, I presented my positive pregnancy test to him on Christmas morning. But with baby number four, it wasn't so easy. Some months, I was absolutely convinced I was finally pregnant. Tender breasts, crazy hunger, lots of bathroom trips, morning sickness. ... I swore I was pregnant, only to be let down when my period started. It's something many women have experienced.

What I was experiencing was a "false" or "phantom" pregnancy, clinically known as pseudocyesis. However, a false pregnancy can go far beyond that initial belief that you're expecting. A woman can have all the symptoms of pregnancy except for an actual baby in her womb. Sometimes the symptoms have a medical basis, such as ovarian tumors, pituitary gland problems, morbid obesity, depression or other conditions. The majority of these women aren't "crazy" or trying to fool someone; they truly believe they're pregnant because their body is telling them so.

Other symptoms include:

  • Abdominal distension
  • Menstrual irregularity or total absence of periods
  • "Quickening" or perceived fetal movement
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms, morning sickness, or stomach problems
  • Breast changes or secretions

One thing that's certain with this mysterious condition is the very real feeling of loss when a woman realizes she's not actually pregnant. Pseudocyesis most often affects women who have already suffered loss, such as experiencing multiple miscarriages or losing a baby to SIDS or some type of trauma. Women who experience phantom pregnancy often have friends or family members who are expecting. Their desire to be pregnant becomes so overwhelming that it manifests as physical signs of pregnancy. In fact, some symptoms, such as a softening cervix, positive pregnancy tests, and actual contractions, have even fooled doctors.

The incidence of pseudocyesis has gone down in the past few decades. In the 1940s, the rate was about one case for 250 pregnancies every. Now, it's approximately one to six cases for every 22,000 live births in the United States. Some doctors suggest that the decline is linked to a reduced societal expectation of women to have babies. Two-thirds of women experiencing false pregnancy are married, and one-third have been pregnant at least once before.

Treatment for a phantom pregnancy is very effective — although stressful. It boils down to proving to a woman that there is no actual pregnancy. In most cases, an ultrasound followed by counseling is successful. The GP Notebook states, "There is no known cause of Pseudocyesis and so treatment is limited to psychological intervention. Explanation of the condition is most effective, usually resulting in rapid resolution of the condition. Recurrence is common."


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