Have you ever heard of a false pregnancy? Do you know excessively worrying about getting pregnant could trick your brain into actually thinking you’re pregnant?
A client I once had been under pressure from family members to produce an offspring. She’d had three miscarriages already and was constantly worrying about getting pregnant. Even missed period got her antsy and anxious. If she had a fever and vomited in the course, she would assume she was pregnant until tests would prove contrary. One day she registered for antenatal classes, and I was pleased for her. The laboratory tests results came back positive.
But the ultrasound scan was another matter. There was no sign of developing life in her uterus. It clearly showed her uterus was non-gravid (not pregnant). This puzzled her a lot. She had said she’d rather believe the laboratory tests results but I had to explain that the ultrasound scan was the more conclusive test.
You see, after hypothalamic stimulation occurs by certain factors from the woman, all or some of the hormones of pregnancy are secreted, and can be detected in the blood stream, whether cyesis is false or not. Hence, in a hysteric pregnancy, it is absolutely possible to feel pregnant, look pregnant and even have laboratory investigations confirm pregnancy in some cases. It’s a wonder how this occurs.
But well, the human body and mind are a fascinating work of art sculpted by nature to function beyond the realm of human comprehension. Unarguably, the human intuition is a frivolous entity.
As a medical practitioner, despite my knowledge and experience, the human nature never ceases to amaze me. A phenomenon known as a false pregnancy also known as hysteric or pseudo-pregnancy is such a marvel. Although this is common in women, false pregnancy can also occur in men. When this happens in males it is known as a false Couvade syndrome.
Unlike a hidden pregnancy, which is intentionally hidden, the woman knows she’s pregnant but might try to deny or negate the obvious symptoms of pregnancy. Even the best hide-and-seek player would not hide a pregnancy forever.
Similarly, there is a cryptic pregnancy in which gravidity is not recognized by the person who is pregnant until they are in labor or have given birth.
Just like the aforementioned, false pregnancy is considered a mind disorder, where the brain misinterprets signals from persistent thoughts of pregnancy and triggers the release of hormones such as estrogen and prolactin that could actually induce pregnancy related symptoms.
As a man experiencing this phenomenon, it could be as a result of pregnancy of a significant other and is known as a sympathetic pregnancy. The man exhibits similar symptoms like the pregnant wife such as nausea, weight gain, mood swings and bloating.
According to Katherine E. Wynne-Edwards, who is a professor of biology at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, ‘depending on the human culture, couvade can also encompass ritualized behavior by the father during the labor and delivery of his child. ’
She also maintained that this could be as a result of hormonal changes that occur in men who are in stable relationships. Bestowing to popular notions these hormones, including oxytocin and vasopressin, are now known to play significant roles in the formation and maintenance of strong pair bonds.
My first encounter with the phenomenon was a case of a woman who registered for an antenatal class. As part of the requirement for registration in a prenatal class, she was required to take a pregnancy test. To my surprise, the test came back negative. She wasn’t pregnant at all. Despite the fact that she showed signs and symptoms of early pregnancy, no baby was in her womb.
From her obstetric history, she has previously lost 3 pregnancies in a period of 2 years. This time, it was really difficult to convince her that there was no baby. Not even a blighted pregnancy (happens when a fertilized egg attaches itself to the uterine wall, but the embryo does not develop).
According to her, she hasn’t had her period for about 3 months, she’s been having nausea, tingling sensations and her breasts were me enlarged. Aside from these symptoms, she’s been having general pregnancy aches and pains like leg cramps and backache and sensing of fetal movement. She has even gained a couple of pounds and her abdomen was extended.
Even when I knew what the result of an ultrasound would be, just to set her doubt at rest, I allowed her when she insisted on having an obstetric scan done. Just as expected, the scan showed her womb was desolate, she insisted on a second opinion scan. This time, I strongly disagreed and promised to give her a referral to another facility. It was an emotional moment while explaining a few possibilities as to why this phenomenon occurs.
The pathophysiology of false pregnancy is not fully understood, specialists are unsure if most phantom pregnancies happen due to a mind-body feedback loop. But it’s sure this twist forces a strong emotion which tricks the body to produce more pregnancy hormones, in turn bringing about physical symptoms that mimic those of a true pregnancy.
As a woman that wants to get pregnant so badly, false pregnancy symptoms can last more than just a few weeks, a couple of months, or even for a number of years. The symptoms can persist for a presumed pregnancy period and some can present like a real labour proceeding with labour-like type of contractions and pains. This might make you think you’re labouring.
If you’re feeling these symptoms, a smart thing to do is visit your healthcare provider for professional help.
CAN WORRYING ABOUT PREGNANCY CAUSE SYMPTOMS?
Simply being excited and optimistic about a missed period may set the occurrence of other symptoms in motion. The body and mind work in a synchrony that is still an enigma to professionals around the world. But to simplify things, it is best to understand what fertility concerns have activated the release of the associated hormones.
The brain is responsible for everything we feel. Every process that goes on in our bodies is coordinated by our brains, not on its own, but by the help of our feelings. The mechanism of false pregnancy occurrence follows the same as; sweating when anxious, fleeing or fighting in the midst of danger (flight or fight response), blinking to bright light etc. The brain senses stimulus and releases hormones according.
When the brain senses repeated anxiety, occurring with the same frequency after specific intervals, it begins to register a pattern which the brain begins to understand and eventually, acts in response to – by releasing pregnancy hormones in a bid to sate the source of the anxiety. Of course, the mechanism is more complex, but this gives a brief insight into the workings of the mind and body in regard to the subject.
Some symptoms present in pseudocyesis are the same as those present in a true pregnancy, and are as follows;
- Enlarged and tender breasts
- Weight gain
- Hair loss
These above, occur especially during the first trimester. If it progresses into the second or third trimester, the signs and symptoms will follow suit;
- Enlarged abdomen
- Pedal oedema in some cases; to mention but a few.
In most cases where the supposed pregnancy progresses, and abdominal enlargement occurs, there may be an underlying cause that isn’t cyesis.
WHAT CAN BE MISTAKEN FOR PREGNANCY?
In women with pseudocyesis and a developing uterus, it is safe to carry out investigations for other possible causes, when an ultrasound has shown the absence of a fetus. Before a Conclusion can be reached, of course, there must be a second and third opinion sought.
Other conditions that could make a woman seem pregnant are;
- Uterine fibroids
- Hydatidiform mole
- Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS).
There are other more rare conditions, but these, except for hyperprolactinemia, can be associated with an enlarging abdomen.
In some instances, pregnancy hormones are not present and can not be related to the presenting symptoms, hence, a diagnosis of pregnancy is not usually made through lab investigations. This is because hormones absent from the blood stream cannot be detected.
RESOLVING FALSE PREGNANCY
When a woman believes she is pregnant, especially for a period of several months, it can be very upsetting for her to learn that she is not. Doctors need to gently break the news, and provide psychological support, including therapy, to help the patient with pseudocyesis recover from her disappointment.
The best form of treatment for pseudocyesis is psychotherapy. Since the pregnancy related hormones are released as a result of a false sense of pregnancy or a longing to be pregnant, the woman (or man) involved should undergo series of ‘talk therapies’ in order to stimulate a hormone release correction.
Familial encouragement and support would go a long way in aiding relief of pseudocyesis, especially in cases where identifying an underlying medical condition proves abortive.
Medications can be used to halt and or reverse the process of the pregnancy hormones in play.
In cases where other conditions are diagnosed as having caused an initial diagnosis of cyesis, such condition should be treated accordingly in order to resolve the symptoms.
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