In Rio de Janeiro, it was an average December day in 2013 when an extremely pregnant woman entered the hospital, convinced she was in labor. The doctors began to go through the normal procedures, including checking for a heartbeat. There was none. The woman was immediately rushed into the operating room for an emergency C-section, in the hopes that they could save the baby. However, they couldn’t, for one simple reason — the baby was never there.
This phenomenon is known as a “phantom pregnancy,” as Vice explained in a fascinating report. A phantom pregnancy, medically termed pseudocyesis, is when all of the symptoms of pregnancy appear — save an actual fetus. Those with the disease experience symptoms from “a distended belly, to swollen breasts, to cessation of menstruation.” According to WebMD, some women even present enlarged uteri.
This unusual medical oddity can be so convincing that doctors often cannot tell when a woman is pregnant versus a phantom pregnancy. In fact, the Brazilian woman in question had used a midwife throughout her false pregnancy.
It was an ultrasound that caught the phantom pregnancy of a woman who crossed paths with Dr. Paul Paulman, a family practice physician and associate dean at the University of Nebraska College of Medicine.
His patient appeared to be nearing the end of her pregnancy at full term, but when Paulman performed a routine ultrasound before starting birthing procedures, he discovered that not only was the woman not pregnant — but also that she had previously undergone a hysterectomy.
Before the advent of attainable ultrasounds, many cultures believed phantom pregnancies to have spiritual connotations. For example, in ancient China, these cases were called “ghost fetuses” — considered to be the result of a “union of a woman with a ghost.” Even Hippocrates wrote of the odd occurrence, and recorded treating a dozen women for the issue.
It’s not just humans who are prone to phantom pregnancies. Dogs, goats, and even pandas have experienced pseudocyesis. There have even been cases, though rare, of men who have been falsely pregnant.
Researchers believe that what spurs the phantom pregnancy is a deep-seated desire to become pregnant. Part of this hypothesis is based on the fact that most women who experience the condition are married women who have been trying to conceive for a long time. Another aspect is the fact that phantom pregnancy is far more common in developing nations, where a woman’s worth is often tied to her fertility.
It is for that reason that pseudocyesis is officially classified as a somatoform disorder — a psychological disorder in which the patient has the physical symptoms of a disease that cannot be explained by underlying science.