Doctors in Brazil reportedly performed an emergency C-section on a woman this week, only to discover that she was really never pregnant at all. Instead, she had what is commonly known as a phantom, or false, pregnancy.
The 37-year-old reportedly sought medical treatment when she became fearful that her pregnancy was at risk. Doctors at the hospital examined the woman who apparently looked pregnant as she had an enlarged abdomen. She reported nausea and sharp abdominal pain. The woman had apparently sought prenatal treatment prior to the hospital visit as well, having reportedly shown documentation that she was under the care of midwives and was actually overdue. When doctors were unable to find a baby’s heartbeat, they performed an emergency C-section, only to find that there was, in fact, no baby at all.
The woman’s husband reportedly told doctors that this was her second false pregnancy within a year. The woman has apparently been released and provided with psychiatric care.
In a strange coincidence, this is actually the second case of phantom pregnancy to be widely reported out of Brazil in about a year. Last December, a 19-year-old Brazilian woman also reported receiving medical treatment throughout her pregnancy to the point of 38 weeks, at which time she sought emergency medical treatment due to concerns about complications. In that case, an emergency C-section was also performed, and upon the absence of the presence of a baby was ruled a phantom pregnancy. Upon being told that she had not been pregnant at all, the woman accused the hospital of having stolen her newborn baby.
Phantom, or false, pregnancy known technically as pseudocyesis, is a little understood condition. It is exceedingly rare occurring in as low as one to six of every 22,000 reported pregnancies.
Women with phantom pregnancies typically show the signs and symptoms of pregnancy. They may have distended abdomens, likely the result of gas, which may also provide explanation for claims of movement in the womb. They may also cease menstruating, feel nauseous, suffer fatigue and have engorged breasts. Some women have even reported experiencing actual contractions, while others have been diagnosed with pregnancy related complications such as preeclampsia.
For some women, a medical condition unrelated to pregnancy may be to blame for the signs and symptoms associated with a phantom pregnancy. Ovarian tumors can account for some of the symptoms associated with pregnancy as can severe depression in rare cases.
For most women with a phantom pregnancy, however, the cause is strictly psychological. Women who have suffered previous miscarriages and infertility are much more likely to have phantom pregnancies. Phantom pregnancies are also more common in women in their thirties and forties who have been unable to have children and may perceive that time is running out for them to do so.
Women with phantom pregnancies absolutely, positively believe that they are pregnant. This belief, combined with their traumatic experiences, stress and exceedingly strong desires to be with child can account for the presence of some pregnancy-like symptoms. Essentially, it is thought that for some of these women the brain tricks the body into believing that it is pregnant.
Women who have had a phantom pregnancy should receive careful and intense psychological treatment and counseling. Intense grief and psychological disturbance can occur once a woman is told and convinced that she was never pregnant at all.
Phantom pregnancy is less common today than it has ever been before, perhaps because of the modern widespread availability of over the counter pregnancy tests and early ultrasound technology. In most cases, a woman will be convinced upon viewing results of either of these tests that she was not pregnant. Fortunately, a resulting emergency c-section is not the typical path to the identification of a phantom pregnancy.
By Michele Wessel