What is a phantom pregnancy, and how would you know?

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The symptoms physically and psychologically mimic true pregnancy
The symptoms physically and psychologically mimic true pregnancy

When news broke that a woman had given birth to decuplets, in what was believed to be a world record, it caused quite a stir. What caused an even bigger stir than the idea of 10 babies being birthed at once, was finding out there were never any babies to begin with.

Many questions regarding the 'Tembisa 10' story remain unanswered, but one question is still on everyone's minds: Why fake a pregnancy? 

Unknown to most, an uncommon condition exists that causes a woman to believe she's pregnant, also known as a phantom pregnancy

A woman with phantom pregnancy may even have many classic symptoms of pregnancy, but this isn't related to a miscarriage.

Read: Women's reproductive years are increasing, reveals new study

Signs and symptoms

Parent24 spoke to Specialist Psychiatrist, Dr Michelle Vlok-Barnard who says that in the case of phantom pregnancy, the woman truly believes that she is pregnant and is not merely pretending. 

"It is associated with significant psychological distress," says Dr. Vlok-Barnard.

"Phantom pregnancy, or Pseudocyesis, can mimic true pregnancy symptoms such as a loss of menstrual period, breast engorgement, abdominal swelling, and morning sickness, a subjective sensation of foetal movement and labour pains at the expected date of delivery. These symptoms will not occur in a woman merely pretending she is pregnant."

According to the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, the prevalence of phantom pregnancy is 1-6 cases per 22,000 births, so it is quite uncommon. 

However, phantom pregnancy is more prevalent in rural and undeveloped communities wherein the women do not generally get examined by a midwife, gynaecologist or physician to seek medical attention.

"In more developed areas, women visit obstetricians in the first trimester of pregnancy who have more accurate means of diagnosis including pregnancy tests and ultrasonographic examinations," explains Dr. Vlok-Barnard.

Also see: WATCH | Struggling to conceive? This could be why

Cause and treatment 

Though the exact causes of the condition are unknown, there are various theories.

"One of these [theories] is that societal pressure may precipitate phantom pregnancy as a psychological defence mechanism if a woman struggles with infertility," says Dr. Vlok-Barnard.

Though there is no concrete treatment for the condition, medical professionals recommend various diagnostic procedures that should be supported by psychological intervention. 

"In some cases, diagnostic procedures such as a negative pregnancy test or the absence of a foetus on ultrasound may help a woman with a phantom pregnancy to be convinced of her non-pregnant condition. In conjunction, psychotherapeutic support is always recommended, and medication may also be indicated to aid recovery," Dr. Vlok-Barnard concludes.

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