Pseudocyesis / False Pregnancy
Written by Dr.M.D.Mazumdar, MD
Pseudocyesis or 'false pregnancy' or 'phantom pregnancy' is a condition in which a woman believes that she is pregnant and even apparently gets all the symptoms of pregnancy. The only thing missing is the baby.
Pseudocyesis is a psychological condition which occurs when a woman is either desperate for a child, or is overwhelmed by fears that she may be pregnant.
It is the result of a delicate mind-body relationship and is proof of the degree to which the mind is able to control the body.
An intense desire for a child, or a deep depression triggers the pituitary gland into producing elevated hormones which mimic the hormone changes of real pregnancy.
Incidence rates of pseudocyesis range from 1 to 6 per 22,000 births.
Women at risk for developing Pseudocyesis
Women with infertility who have been trying for a child for a long time.
Women who have recently suffered an abortion or miscarriage.
Women who are afraid of an unwanted pregnancy, for example, a rape victim.
Women who have suffered an incestuous relationship.
Women with a deep depression who tend to convert their mental trauma into the physical symptoms of pregnancy.
Symptoms of Pseudocyesis
The symptoms of pseudocyesis are the same as the symptoms of normal pregnancy.
Missed Periods: Although many women complain of missed menstrual periods, repeated questions will usually bring forth a history of bleeding or spotting on and off throughout the pregnancy.
Some women however manage to suppress their periods completely so that they do not get any bleeding at all during the false pregnancy.
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Enlarging abdomen: The abdomen begins to enlarge gradually at the same rate as that of a normal pregnancy.
This is done by the accumulation of increased amounts of gas and fat in the abdomen. The intestinal loops become grossly distended with gas while fat is accumulated in the layers of the abdominal wall as well as inside the abdomen.
Some of the increased size of the abdomen is also due to an increased curvature of the lower back, pushing the abdomen forwards.
The enlarged abdomen deflates suddenly when the woman is put under anesthesia.
Breast enlargement and milk secretion: The psychological impact of the woman firmly believing herself to be pregnant tricks the pituitary gland into secreting large amounts of prolactin hormone.
Prolactin, together with increasing levels of progesterone and estrogen causes enlargement of the breast tissue, as well as secretion of breastmilk.
Fetal movement: Many women suffering from pseudocyesis feel apparent fetal movement. This movement is due to the movement of the intestines bloated with excessive gas.
Some amount of muscle twitching can also occur which can also be mistaken for fetal movement.
Labor Pains: Some women may actually come to the hospital complaining of labor pains. Even after examination reveals that there is no fetus, some of these women get cured of pseudocyesis only after they have delivered an imaginary baby.
Other Symptoms: Other symptoms like nausea and vomiting are psychosomatic in nature - which means that the body responds to the believes and thoughts present in the mind.
Diagnosis of Pseudocyesis
Pseudocyesis is diagnosed by 3 main signs:
No fetal heart sound can be detected.
Ultrasound shows an empty uterus.
Pregnancy test is usually negative although rarely, there may be a faintly positive test.
Treatment of Pseudocyesis
The main treatment of pseudocyesis is by psychotherapy. Most women can be convinced that they are not pregnant by showing them the ultrasound reports. But the underlying psychological problems need to be analysed and treated by a psychiatrist.
Other alternative methods of treatment like hypnotherapy have also been tried but may or may not be successful.
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