Phantom Pregnancy is 'real'

As a practising obstetrician I am often asked about the concept of ‘Phantom pregnancy’. Many people have a poor or mistaken understanding of this condition. Whilst unexplained absence of menstrual periods is a relatively common occurrence affecting many women at one time or another, phantom pregnancy is not that common.

Phantom pregnancy can affect women of any age but is more common in women in their late 30s and beyond. it does not affect post-menopausal women. Many expect this condition to affect those who do not have children but, in fact, it has been known to affect women with several children already

Psychological basis of the condition

What is now accepted by all experts is that there is a psychological basis to this condition. What triggers development of phantom pregnancy in any one individual is not clearly understood. However, there is no doubt that each and every woman with the condition has a deep desire to bear a child. That overwhelming desire will push the woman to have a blurred distinction between what her heart desires and what is really going on.

Not feigned pregnancy

It is important to separate phantom pregnancy from feigned or ‘fake’ pregnancy. A woman with feigned pregnancy is fully aware that she is not pregnant. She just sets out to deceive others. Intended victims of the charade could be the partner, family or the employer. Sometimes this can take a very sinister turn whereby this deception is carried on for months, putting up a show of a ‘growing pregnancy’ at the end of which, an unsuspecting new mother loses her baby as the fake mother steals the baby to pass as her own. Such serious crimes have, from time to time, led to gruesome murders being committed. Women with phantom pregnancies do not engage in such activities because, in their own minds, they are definitely pregnant. There is neither a desire nor a need to deceive.

Queen Mary

Not new: Queen Mary 1 of England in the 16th Century had two phantom pregnancies
Not new: Queen Mary 1 of England in the 16th Century had two phantom pregnancies | Source

Pregnancy signs and symptoms

A woman with a phantom pregnancy will experience all the common pregnancy signs and symptoms. Her periods will stop. Her breasts will get engorged. The abdomen will grow bigger. She will be convinced she can feel fetal movements. Of course many of the outwardly visible pregnancy signs will be hormone driven despite the absence of a pregnancy. This is a powerful demonstration of the power of ‘mind over matter’. Such women will normally seek normal pregnancy care. It is at this stage that the diagnosis will become clear. Not that the woman herself will believe it when she is told she is, in fact, not pregnant. A pregnancy test in phantom pregnancy is always negative.  A lot of times, she may decide at this point to shun prenatal services only to present herself for ‘delivery’ at a maternity unit when she goes into ‘labor’ months later. She will, of course, be thwarted again by being informed that she is not in labor and , in fact, she is not pregnant.

Psychologist’s role

Phantom pregnancy is dealt with via a multi-disciplinary approach. Once the diagnosis is made, the woman should not be left to fend for herself. Even though she may look physically well, she is, in fact a deeply troubled individual who should be availed services of, among others, a psychologist. This can be a long process but it is necessary to deal with the problem. Once insight into the issue has been established, gynaecological input to look at whether it is possible (and desirable) to help her achieve her underlying desire can be added. Phantom pregnancy is a real condition and there is no pretence involved.

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Comments 11 comments

InfinityVal profile image

InfinityVal 5 years ago from NNY

We used to have a dachsund who had false pregnancies. We figure it was because she so loved puppies. Her belly would get round and even get lots of milk - right on schedule for what was expected of a pregnancy. She had us fooled a few times, but the vet confirmed that both of these times she wasn't pregnant.

akanga1 profile image

akanga1 5 years ago Author

That's an interesting observation InfinityVal. In fact, when I googled the term to see how much information there was out there regarding Phantom Pregnancy, most of the references were about the condition in dogs!

Joseph Branch 5 years ago

Such a good piece of writing! I am getting some work performed on my automobile and this place does not have reading material not to mention doesn't have any television so it dawned on me that I have our laptop computer inside the vehicle and a witeless Net connection. Nevertheless, returning to this great article. Whoever authored this did an awesome job. I once was a magazine editor and can tell the significant difference between a great report as well as a terrible one. Kudos for your blog post. I've book marked your blog as a favorite!

akanga1 profile image

akanga1 5 years ago Author

Thank you Joseph for your very kind comments. I just hope it can reach some of those affected and their loved ones. Thank you again.

Melisa 5 years ago

I think that I may be psychologically pregnant because I was emotionally unstable. Having this awareness, how long will it take for my symptoms to subside, assuming that I am in fact, not pregnant?

akanga1 profile image

akanga1 5 years ago Author

Hi Melissa, thank you for your comments. It is difficult to reconcile what you have briefly described here with a diagnosis of phantom pregnancy. A person with phantom pregnancy is convinced she is pregnant even when a pregnancy test and a scan are negative. The psychological issue is therefore deeply ingrained. Yours does not sound to be like that as you have the awareness that you might not be pregnant. Once you have that the 'symptoms' should disappear. It may very well be the case that your issue is different and a review by a doctor may be the best thing to do. Best wishes.

julie 4 years ago

when i was 15 i had a positive pregnancy test (done by the hospital) had a scan nothing was seen, my hcg levels were checked and were increasing , had an internal scan- nothing was seen, was sent for a laparoscopy and nothing was found.. i was not pregnant... i had no cramps or pain or bleeding ( hosp thought i may have miscarried) , could this have been a phantom pregnancy??? hospital said they didn't know what had happened n that i was a medical mystery?

akanga1 profile image

akanga1 4 years ago Author

Thanks Julie for this interesting story. This was NOT a phantom pregnancy. As a rule, with phantom pregnancy, the pregnancy test is negative and certainly the more objective test, that of hCG levels in blood will confirm that the person is not really pregnant. If hCG levels were detected and serial tests showed levels increasing, then that was certainly not a phantom pregnancy. Since I don't know how 'high' those levels were, it is difficult for me to speculate on what the cause might have been. An interesting case indeed.

lyn 4 years ago

I came across one case today at the OPD, where i'm working as a Junior Resident, and what i saw really something. I saw this 34yrs old patient who came with 8months of amenorrhoea for ante natal check up, and had felt her quickening on the 5th month of her amenorrhoea. I checked her abdomen, and i could feel a tensed globular enlargement. I also heard what seemed like a uterine shulffle, but the foetal heart sound was vague and indistinct. I ordered for a sonography, suspecting polyhydramnious. I didn't do any pregnancy test, as she came from other Hospital where she was already started with iron folic acid tabs. What made me more sure was what i saw looked just like a foetal movement i've seen in other pregnancy. She did her sonography only today, and the report showed no signs of pregnancy, with all pelvic organs normal, and not even an ascites in the abdomen.We did her Hcg test, it was negative. But we saw with our own eyes today, that there were movements in her abdomen, which looked to huge to be a peristalsis,according to me. My boss told me that she faked it, but what i saw was something crawling inside her distended abdomen, that looked impossible to fake. Can somebody feigned this kind of thing? Could this be a true case of 'pseudoceysis', as my boss told me, or something else? I'm really shocked!

akanga1 profile image

akanga1 4 years ago Author

Thanks Lyn for this interesting real-life story. For me, this is a classic Phantom pregnancy or, as your 'boss' put it, pseudocyesis. The one area that I would disagree with your boss is the assertion that the distended abdomen and the movements observed were faked. That isn't the case. Women affected by this condition believe completely that they are pregnant. This profoundly affects the brain function to an extent that it results in absent periods, abdominal distension and peristaltic bowel movements that mimic fetal movements. These things aren't consciously and deliberately put upon by the woman and therefore 'faking it' is the wrong label. As you saw yourself, the scan showed that there was nothing else to explain the clinical findings. It is, indeed, a classic case.

Kierstin Gunsberg profile image

Kierstin Gunsberg 3 years ago from Traverse City, Michigan

Julie's pregnancy is called a "chemical pregnancy" wherein the woman did actually conceive but miscarried so early on that there was no fetal development and therefore nothing to find during a physical exam. I just wrote a hub on chemical pregnancies!

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