It’s possible for your body to exhibit pregnancy-like symptoms even when you’re not actually pregnant. This is often referred to as a “phantom pregnancy” or “pseudocyesis.” Let’s explore some of the ways your body can trick you into thinking you’re pregnant when you’re not.
What is pseudocyesis?
Pseudocyesis, also known as false pregnancy, is a condition where a non-pregnant woman exhibits symptoms associated with pregnancy. This can include missed periods, abdominal swelling, breast enlargement, nausea, and even labor pains. In some cases, the woman’s belly may expand as hormones cause the abdominal muscles and uterus to relax.
While the exact causes are unclear, pseudocyesis often results from psychological factors or hormonal imbalances. For example, intense desire for a child or fear of infertility can trigger physical symptoms. Changes in hormone levels related to stress or menopause may also play a role.
Common signs and symptoms
Here are some of the most common signs and symptoms of pseudocyesis:
- Missed or irregular periods
- Tender, enlarged breasts
- Darkening areolas
- Nausea and vomiting
- Food cravings or aversions
- Fatigue and mood changes
- Abdominal swelling and weight gain
- Sensation of fetal movement
- Positive pregnancy test (hCG present)
Most symptoms are typical of early pregnancy. However, there is no fetus present. Pelvic exams and ultrasound scans will show an empty uterus.
What causes a phantom pregnancy?
There are a few theories on what causes pseudocyesis:
- Hormonal imbalances – Elevated prolactin and decreased gonadotropin levels can inhibit ovulation and menstruation while still allowing breast changes and abdominal swelling.
- Psychological factors – Stress, depression, desire for a child and grief after miscarriage are associated with phantom pregnancies.
- Sudden hormone drops – Coming off birth control pills, stopping breastfeeding, and perimenopause can trigger confusing bodily changes.
- Underlying conditions – Thyroid disorders, tumors producing hCG, and ovarian cysts are possible causes.
In many cases, there are both physical and emotional factors at play. Changes in pituitary gland function seem to be key, but mental states influence hormone levels too.
Certain factors appear to increase a woman’s risk of developing false pregnancy symptoms:
- Age – Most common during the reproductive years, rare after menopause
- Infertility – Especially intense desire for a child
- Recent childbirth – More likely in first few months postpartum
- Miscarriages – Grief sometimes manifests physically
- Menopause transition – Fluctuating hormones trigger changes
- Amenorrhea – Lack of periods for other reasons
- Coming off hormones – Like birth control or HRT
- Stress and anxiety – Both emotional and physiological effects
While any woman of reproductive age could develop pseudocyesis, these factors seem to increase susceptibility.
How common is pseudocyesis?
Pseudocyesis is rare, occurring in just 1 to 6 out of every 22,000 births. Rates may be higher in certain groups:
|General fertile population||1 in 22,000 births|
|Women with infertility||1 in 160 births|
|Women with psychiatric disorders||1 in 200 births|
While not incredibly common, phantom pregnancies seem to happen more frequently among women struggling with fertility or mental health issues. Cases increased throughout the 20th century but may now be declining again.
When to see a doctor
If you suspect pseudocyesis, make an appointment with your doctor right away. They can perform exams and tests to get to the bottom of your symptoms. Blood work and ultrasounds will help rule out an actual pregnancy.
See your doctor if you experience:
- No period for 60+ days
- Positive home pregnancy test
- Enlarged or tender breasts
- Nausea, fatigue and food cravings
- Abdominal swelling or weight gain
- Feeling fetal movement in your belly
- Other unusual symptoms
It’s important to identify pseudocyesis early on to avoid unnecessary tests and emotional distress. Make an appointment right away if pregnancy-like symptoms arise but you haven’t conceived.
Tests and diagnosis
To diagnose pseudocyesis, your doctor will typically:
- Do a pelvic exam to feel for uterine changes
- Order a urine or blood pregnancy test
- Conduct an ultrasound to look at your uterus
- Check hormone levels via blood work
- Rule out other conditions like ovarian cysts
These tests will help confirm that you are not actually pregnant. Your doctor may also ask about your medical history and personal life to uncover any potential emotional triggers.
Treatment focuses on addressing the underlying cause of false pregnancy symptoms:
- Hormonal imbalances may be treated with medications or lifestyle changes.
- Emotional factors can be improved through counseling and therapy.
- Sudden hormone changes may resolve on their own over time.
Making dietary and exercise modifications, trying relaxation techniques, and joining a support group can also help. In severe cases, antidepressants or antipsychotics may be prescribed.
Symptoms typically fade within a few weeks once the root cause has been addressed. However, they may come back if triggers remain unresolved.
Here are some tips for coping with a phantom pregnancy:
- Seek professional help to uncover the source of your symptoms.
- Join a support group to connect with other women experiencing pseudocyesis.
- Communicate openly with loved ones about what you’re going through.
- Allow yourself to grieve if you hoped you were pregnant.
- Reduce stress through self-care, therapy, yoga, meditation, etc.
- Make healthy lifestyle changes like better diet, more exercise, and sufficient sleep.
- Focus on the future – make plans for things like vacations or date nights.
Be patient and treat yourself kindly. With time, support, and lifestyle changes, these pregnancy-like symptoms will resolve.
While you can’t always prevent pseudocyesis, the following tips may help reduce your risk:
- Manage stress levels through regular exercise, meditation, therapy, etc.
- Seek treatment for existing mental health conditions like anxiety and depression.
- Communicate openly with your partner about fertility goals and timeline.
- Avoid tracking ovulation or taking hormone tests if they raise your anxiety.
- Have realistic expectations if trying to conceive.
- Get reproductive health exams to identify and treat any underlying conditions.
- Make healthy lifestyle choices to maintain hormonal balance.
Building emotional resilience, not fixating on conception dates, and maintaining overall wellness can help prevent falsely interpreted symptoms.
Outlook and complications
With proper treatment, false pregnancy symptoms typically fade within a few weeks to months. However, there are some potential complications to be aware of:
- Repeated episodes – Symptoms may come and go if underlying cause remains.
- Depression – Grief over not being pregnant may trigger clinical depression.
- Relationship strain – Partner may feel tricked or misled.
- Loss of trust – In body and medical providers if symptoms convince everyone.
Seeking help quickly improves your prognosis and prevents these complications. Most women who experience pseudocyesis go on to have healthy pregnancies and deliveries when the time is right.
Phantom pregnancies are complex conditions involving both physical and emotional factors. If you suspect false symptoms, see a doctor promptly for evaluation. Tests will determine if you are actually pregnant. From there, treatment focuses on addressing the root cause of symptoms.
With professional help plus lifestyle changes to reduce stress, pseudocyesis symptoms typically fade within weeks. Support groups can also help you cope. While disheartening, try to remember your reproductive capabilities are still intact. Patience, self-care, and a positive outlook will carry you through this challenging experience.