Today in the news, there are reports of a 37-year-old woman in Brazil who went to the hospital, because she feared that her pregnancy was at risk. When she arrived at the hospital, the doctors examined her and noted that she looked pregnant – with an enlarged abdomen and symptoms of nausea.
Upon failing to identify a fetal heart rate, the doctors conducted an emergency caesarean section on the woman – only to realize there was no baby inside her.
False pregnancy, phantom pregnancy, or pseudocyesis, is a rare but very real condition. Over the years, I’ve had patients with this condition, which is characterized by a woman’s belief that she is pregnant when she is not. She feels all the symptoms of pregnancy – including nausea, vomiting, weight gain, fatigue, tender breasts and enlargement of the abdomen. However, all of these symptoms are driven by psychological factors and not a true pregnancy.
Though phantom pregnancies are not well understood yet, we do know they often occur in women with a poor obstetrical history, such as history of miscarriage or infertility. Many times, these psychological factors can even influence the hormonal pathways in the brain, increasing levels of pregnancy hormones and stimulating the reproductive organs. This can even lead to the stimulation of milk producing cells in the breasts.
Many of these patients experience these symptoms for months, and they are often quite alarmed when they are told there is no pregnancy after they seek medical advice. Doctors need to be very careful in handling these cases, so that women involved can get the proper counseling and help they need.
On a final note, you will be surprised to know that men can also suffer from false pregnancy – although that’s a story for another day.