You’ve missed a period, and you’ve gained some weight -- no big deal. You’re sure you’re not pregnant. But, what if it’s a cryptic pregnancy?
A cryptic pregnancy is when you’re pregnant but don’t realize it. While that may seem impossible (morning sickness anyone?), cryptic pregnancies do happen.
And, it’s not because the woman is in denial about being pregnant. In some cases, it’s entirely possible that it is the fetus causing the condition.
What Is a Cryptic Pregnancy?
Saying a cryptic pregnancy, sometimes called a “stealth” pregnancy, is because the woman doesn’t realize it is a bit simplistic.
In many cryptic pregnancies, a woman does not experience the typical pregnancy symptoms. That can lead her to believe that the symptoms point to something other than pregnancy.
To understand the symptoms of a cryptic pregnancy, we first need to examine typical pregnancy symptoms.
Usually, the first sign of pregnancy is a missed period. Once a woman has realized that’s happened, the next “symptom” is generally a positive home pregnancy test. A doctor later confirms the pregnancy with a blood test and early ultrasound.
If a woman does not realize she’s missed her period or hasn’t taken a pregnancy test, other symptoms can make her aware that she is pregnant.
Morning sickness is one of these symptoms. While not every woman will experience morning sickness, many do. And, even if it’s not a full-blown appointment with the toilet, sometimes morning sickness can feel like nausea or queasiness.
In early pregnancy, most women will also feel extreme exhaustion for no apparent reason. There may also be swelling and tenderness in the breasts. And, some women experience vaginal spotting early in the pregnancy or even throughout the entire pregnancy.
Cryptic pregnancy symptoms
In a cryptic pregnancy, typical pregnancy symptoms are overlooked or misleading. They are dismissed as “something, but not pregnancy,” so everyone looks for other causes that explain the symptoms.
For example, it is not uncommon for a woman who has a cryptic pregnancy to have a negative home pregnancy test. The lack of a positive home pregnancy test might convince a woman that the symptoms she’s experiencing (nausea and tiredness) are just an illness and not a pregnancy.
Further symptoms may then be dismissed as “something else.” Weight gain might be “too much dessert.” Any spotting that happens might just be “normal” spotting or a lighter than usual period. The continued absence of a period might be chalked up to perimenopause or even early menopause.
Cryptic Pregnancy Causes
There’s no clear cut explanation for what causes for a cryptic pregnancy. However, there are a few things that can help us understand how a cryptic pregnancy happens.
Some physical conditions can create the conditions for a cryptic pregnancy. Women with fertility issues may have been told that they will never conceive on their own. As a result, they dismiss early pregnancy because they “can’t get pregnant.”
Women in perimenopause may ignore a missed period because they’ve been told that their periods will be “unusual.” The time between periods tends to increase during perimenopause, so a late period may not be cause for alarm.
Along those same lines, women with low amounts of body fat tend to skip periods, so “another missed period” is not unusual. Likewise, women with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) have fluctuating hormones. These fluctuations can cause skipped periods and weight gain that is normal for them.
Birth control failure can also cause a cryptic pregnancy. For example, while rare, it is possible to get pregnant with an IUD. However, because the IUD is in place, no one suspects pregnancy as the cause of any symptoms.
Lastly, it is possible to get pregnant after a recent pregnancy, but before your period returns, especially during extended breastfeeding.
Ovulation occurs before your period, so it is possible to ovulate, become pregnant, and never experience a period between pregnancies. Other symptoms, like extreme tiredness, could then be attributed to having a newborn and are easily ignored.
While some women with a cryptic pregnancy experience typical pregnancy symptoms and dismiss them, other women with a cryptic pregnancy experience mild to no symptoms at all.
When a woman is pregnant, the fetus emits a hormone called human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG). It’s the hormone that causes growth in the fetus, although, everyone has some hCG in their bodies.
When you’re pregnant, you have more hCG in your body (thanks to the fetus), and it’s the hCG from the fetus that causes pregnancy symptoms. When you take a pregnancy test (at home or in the doctor’s office), the test is measuring an increase in hCG levels to determine if you are pregnant.
However, some fetuses do not produce enough hCG. As a result, a woman may never realize she’s pregnant because she does not have enough hCG in her body to cause pregnancy symptoms. But how does that happen?
One interesting theory about the cause of cryptic pregnancy is that it’s an evolutionary adaptation that helps the fetus survive.
The theory states that a woman’s body knows when it is overly stressed. At conception, the fetus picks up on this stress. Because there's a chance that a pregnancy will further increase the woman's stress, the fetus emits lower hCG levels to survive to birth.
For example, a woman who is already stressed discovers she is pregnant. That additional stress could lead to a miscarriage. By not letting the woman know she’s pregnant (by emitting less hCG), the fetus increases its chances for survival.
The most popular explanation for cryptic pregnancy is somatic denial. That means, for whatever reason, the woman does not become aware that she is pregnant, quite possibly until she delivers.
In this case, the woman is not willfully denying that she is pregnant. She truly is unaware that she is pregnant.
No one knows what causes somatic denial. However, some experts believe that just like the fetus trying to survive, the woman’s brain realizes she cannot handle the psychological reality of being pregnant.
Therefore, the brain creates the conditions that allow the woman to deny the pregnancy until the baby is born.
It’s Not a Cryptic Pregnancy
Many pregnancy symptoms are similar to those of common ailments. For example, having PCOS may mean that skipping a period is routine and no cause for alarm. While a cryptic pregnancy is still possible, it’s important to figure out what else might cause your symptoms.
Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome
While there are many symptoms associated with PCOS, infertility is one of those symptoms. However, this does not mean that a woman with PCOS cannot become pregnant. That said, PCOS usually causes irregular periods and weight gain, symptoms that are similar to pregnancy symptoms.
Perimenopause or menopause
Perimenopause is the time between normal fertility and menopause. Like PCOS, perimenopause results in irregular periods and weight gain. Because the time between periods increases during perimenopause, it’s not uncommon to go for many weeks or even months without a period.
And, if your period never returns, it may be menopause and not a pregnancy.
Low body fat
Women need body fat in order to ovulate. If you don’t ovulate, you won’t have a period. If you’ve skipped a period and are very athletic or have low body fat for any reason, it’s possible that the lack of fat is causing your missed period, not a pregnancy.
Interestingly, PMS and early pregnancy share many symptoms. For example, cramps, backaches, food cravings, and breast tenderness can all be PMS symptoms. They can also all be early pregnancy symptoms. The only way to tell them apart is by the arrival of your period.
While conditions like PCOS can cause weight gain, sometimes weight gain happens because you’ve indulged in too much dessert or cut back on exercise. Stress can even cause weight gain.
Pregnancy weight gain does not normally start until the second trimester. However, if you seem to have been packing on the pounds recently, it may be that your diet needs a shakeup.
Nausea, tiredness, vomiting, headaches. These are all things you can have when you’re pregnant. Or, they happen when you have the flu.
While a fever may be the only thing that differentiates an illness from a pregnancy, remember that not everyone that gets sick gets a fever and that when you are pregnant, your base body temperature rises.
Cryptic Can Also Mean “Confusing”
While your body may be sending you signals that you’re pregnant, it may also be telling you that you’re sick or are just expecting your regular period. When in doubt, contact your healthcare professional for an evaluation.
Have you or someone close to you experienced a cryptic pregnancy? Share your experience in the comments below.
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