What is pseudocyesis?
Pseudocyesis, or false pregnancy, is when a person believes they are pregnant when they are not. It’s also called a phantom pregnancy. With pseudocyesis, a person has pregnancy symptoms and feels pregnant. However, pregnancy tests and ultrasounds confirm they aren’t physically pregnant, and no fetus is growing in their uterus. It’s a rare condition, and healthcare providers believe psychological and hormonal factors play a role in causing it.
How common is pseudocyesis?
Pseudocyesis is rare. There are between 1 to 6 cases per 22,000 births. Most cases have been found in patients between 16 and 39 years of age. False pregnancy was more common before reliable pregnancy tests.
What's the difference between pseudocyesis and a real pregnancy?
The biggest difference between false pregnancy and a real pregnancy is the presence of a fetus. A person with pseudocyesis may feel pregnant and have signs of pregnancy, but a pregnancy test, blood test or ultrasound will show they aren’t pregnant.
Symptoms and Causes
What are the symptoms of pseudocyesis?
The symptoms of pseudocyesis are similar to actual pregnancy because a person believes they are pregnant or has a condition causing pregnancy symptoms. For example, some people will report feeling movement in their uterus.
Other common symptoms of false pregnancy are:
- Breast tenderness.
- Enlarged abdomen.
- Missed menstrual period.
- Weight gain.
- Nausea or morning sickness.
- Food cravings or aversions.
- False labor contractions.
What causes pseudocyesis?
Medical experts aren’t entirely sure what causes pseudocyesis but think that psychological and hormonal factors may contribute. It may be considered a somatic symptom disorder or when a person has physical symptoms of a condition without any medical explanation.
Some of the reasons a person may develop pseudocyesis are:
- Strong desire to become pregnant.
- Multiple miscarriages.
- Loss of a child.
- Extreme fear of becoming pregnant.
- Depression or anxiety.
- Emotional trauma.
- Sexual abuse.
Psychological factors of false pregnancy
The mind-body connection can be powerful. Some healthcare providers believe the desire to become pregnant is the most common cause of pseudocyesis. People may have such a strong desire to be pregnant that their body helps them believe they are pregnant. Other conditions such as depression from infertility or miscarriage can be a risk factor for false pregnancy.
Hormonal factors of false pregnancy
Medical conditions like uterine tumors, menopause or cancer can cause changes in a person’s hormone levels. These hormonal changes can mimic pregnancy symptoms like missed periods, fatigue or weight gain. Healthcare providers may want to rule out these medical conditions before diagnosing pseudocyesis. A strong desire to become pregnant may impact hormones directly and cause pregnancy symptoms.
Diagnosis and Tests
How is pseudocyesis diagnosed?
Healthcare providers will perform a pelvic exam, ultrasound, urine test or blood test to check for pregnancy. If a false pregnancy has occurred, these tests will come back negative and confirm that conception did not occur and the person isn’t pregnant.
People with this condition will likely be upset, disappointed and in disbelief that there’s no fetus. An ultrasound may be the best option for convincing a person with pseudocyesis that they aren’t pregnant because it’s the most visual diagnostic test for pregnancy.
Some health conditions have the same symptoms as pregnancy. For example, a rare form of cancer can secrete pregnancy hormones. Healthcare providers may perform additional tests to rule out health conditions that may be the cause of pregnancy symptoms.
Can you get a positive pregnancy test with pseudocyesis?
No, you won’t get a positive pregnancy test. At-home pregnancy tests check for the hormone HCG (human chorionic gonadotropin). Cells from the placenta produce HCG only during pregnancy. Ultrasound and urine tests will also confirm no fetus is growing in your body.
Management and Treatment
What is the treatment for pseudocyesis?
The first step in treatment is convincing a person they aren’t pregnant. It’s helpful to show the person that no fetus is growing inside their body using ultrasound or other imaging tools.
Healthcare providers will also need to treat the medical conditions causing pregnancy symptoms. For example, using hormone therapy to help the person get their menstrual period.
Pseudocyesis is typically treated as a psychological condition. Treating pseudocyesis involves emotional support, behavioral therapy and help from a therapist or counselor. Identifying factors that led to false pregnancy and coping with those factors is essential to healing.
How can I help someone with pseudocyesis?
People with pseudocyesis need a compassionate support system. Chances are your loved one would benefit from talking through their feelings. They are mourning the loss of a pregnancy and dealing with many emotions — anger, sadness, grief or trauma. Being there for your friend or partner and showing you care will go a long way in their healing.
Is pseudocyesis a delusion?
No, pseudocyesis isn’t a delusion. People diagnosed with the delusion of pregnancy don’t have pregnancy symptoms but believe they are pregnant. People with pseudocyesis have symptoms of a real pregnancy. Healthcare providers treat these conditions differently.
Outlook / Prognosis
How long does someone have pseudocyesis?
Some people have symptoms of false pregnancy for up to nine months (the length of a typical pregnancy), while others have symptoms for only a few weeks or months.
How do I take care of myself?
Be gentle with yourself. It may be painful to accept that you aren’t pregnant, but don’t feel embarrassed or ashamed that you believed you were. Your healthcare providers, friends and family can help support you through this time. Be open about what you are feeling and seek counseling with a therapist if more help is needed.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Pseudocyesis, or false pregnancy, is when a person believes they are pregnant. Physical symptoms like weight gain and morning sickness may trick the body into believing conception occurred. Despite feeling pregnant, there’s no fetus. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and don’t feel ashamed or embarrassed. Ask for support from your healthcare provider, partner or friends. Talking to a therapist or someone you trust may help you accept that you aren’t pregnant and get to the root cause of your condition. Finally, contact your healthcare provider if you continue to have symptoms or think you are pregnant so they can rule out other medical conditions.
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