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False Pregnancy (Pseudocyesis)

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Pregnancy is usually an exciting time for expectant parents. But pregnancy doesn't always end with the anticipated baby. In rare cases, a woman (or even a man) believes she is pregnant, only to find out that her symptoms were caused not by pregnancy, but by something else entirely.

False pregnancy, clinically termed pseudocyesis, is the belief that you are expecting a baby when you are not really carrying a child. People with pseudocyesis have many, if not all, symptoms of pregnancy -- with the exception of an actual fetus. This unusual condition accounts for one to six out of every 22,000 live births. In rare cases, even men can have a false pregnancy. Some men experience a related phenomenon known as couvade, or sympathetic pregnancy. They will develop many of the same symptoms as their pregnant partners, including weight gain, nausea, and backache.

 

What Causes False Pregnancy?

Only recently have doctors begun to understand the psychological and physical issues that are at the root of pseudocyesis. Although the exact causes still aren't known, doctors suspect that psychological factors may trick the body into "thinking" that it's pregnant.

When a woman feels an intense desire to get pregnant, which may be because of infertility, repeat miscarriages, impending menopause, or a desire to get married, her body may produce some pregnancy signs (such as a swollen belly, enlarged breasts, and even the sensation of fetal movement). The woman's brain then misinterprets those signals as pregnancy, and triggers the release of hormones (such as estrogen and prolactin) that lead to actual pregnancy symptoms.

Some researchers have suggested that poverty, a lack of education, childhood sexual abuse, or relationship problems might play a role in triggering false pregnancy. Having a false pregnancy is not the same as claiming to be pregnant for a benefit (for example, to profit financially), or having delusions of pregnancy (such as in patients with schizophrenia).

 

Symptoms of False Pregnancy

Women with pseudocyesis have many of the same symptoms as those who are actually pregnant, including:

  • Interruption of the menstrual period
  • Swollen belly
  • Enlarged and tender breasts, changes in the nipples, and possibly milk production
  • Feeling of fetal movements
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Weight gain

These symptoms can last for just a few weeks, for nine months, or even for several years. A very small percentage of patients with false pregnancy will arrive at the doctor's office or hospital with what feels like labor pains.

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