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.
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.
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.