What is a chemical pregnancy, what causes it and are they harmful to women? We ask Dr Larisa Corda, an Obstetrician and Gynaecologist to demystify.
You may not have heard of a chemical pregnancy but they are remarkably common. Despite that, women tend not to talk about them to their doctors, friends or family.
The Miscarriage Association defines a chemical pregnancy as “a very early pregnancy loss which usually happens just after the embryo implants (before or around five weeks).” For most women, it is diagnosed when the pregnancy is confirmed by an at-home pregnancy test but it cannot be seen on an ultrasound scan.
Although, generally, the physical side-effects of a chemical pregnancy are not severe – the most common one is a heavy period – many women find chemical pregnancies difficult to deal with emotionally. This may be because chemical pregnancies are not discussed as often as other types of miscarriage and many women have never heard of them before they experience them themselves.
Dr Larisa Corda, an Obstetrician and Gynaecologist affirms: “No matter when baby loss occurs, it’s almost inevitably associated with grief and sadness. Whether it’s early or late does not invalidate someone’s attachment to their baby which can be very profound even at an early stage.”
The experience of having a pregnancy test is an emotional one for many women who are trying to conceive and Dr Larisa explains, “Even the term chemical pregnancy can be upsetting in itself, almost suggesting something that is not there but should have been.”
On top of this, because a chemical pregnancy occurs so early on, many women will not have even shared their pregnancy news with their loved ones yet, which means they may be lacking a larger support network.
Lydia, 27, living in North Wales, experienced five chemical pregnancies while trying to conceive and she expressed how difficult it was for those around her to understand the emotions attached to it. “You’re the only one with that pregnancy test and that’s the only sign that you have conceived and trying to convey that to family and friends who have no idea can feel really lonely and you can feel completely not validated in your experience, first, of being pregnant and losing the baby but then of having a loss to grieve.”
Lydia experienced a miscarriage at 11½ weeks of pregnancy prior to her chemical pregnancies and she explains that the way she and her husband perceive her chemical pregnancies and her miscarriage compared to the way that the people around her consider them is the biggest difference between the two, “We still remember those losses as well because we did create life, we did conceive. But in other people’s minds, we just had the one miscarriage.”
Experiencing a chemical pregnancy is not necessarily a sign of a bigger health problem. In fact, Dr Larisa says that “having a positive pregnancy test indicates that the process of implantation did at least start and this actually is a positive prognostic factor for the future.” She explains that chemical pregnancies can occur in up to 50% of first time conceptions but that “if someone has three or more, then they should be investigated in the same way as recurrent miscarriages to see if there are any underlying conditions that could be leading to this.”
This was the case for Lydia who spent a long time going back and forth with her GP to try and figure out why she was experiencing frequent chemical pregnancies. It was only when she was referred to a specialist that she was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and prescribed medication. Within six weeks of taking it, she fell pregnant with her daughter and went full term.
Jo, 37 and based in Essex, experienced three chemical pregnancies as well as miscarriages at a later stage of pregnancy and both she and Lydia discuss how important online communities were for them during their chemical pregnancies. Neither Jo nor Lydia had heard of chemical pregnancies before they experienced them and they first came to understand what they were online.
“This online community of women who were all desperately trying, and failing, to successfully conceive, provided me with so much knowledge to do with conceiving and miscarriages. I realised I was experiencing a chemical pregnancy for the first time because so many of these other women were describing what was happening to me.” says Jo.
Because chemical pregnancies take place so early on during the pregnancy, many people who have not experienced one themselves struggle to empathise with women who are going through them. Jo explained to me that whilst the physical effects were bearable – a slightly heavier and more painful period in her case – the psychological effects were “horrid”. “No one would take me seriously if I told anyone how I was feeling or cried about it, because it was so, so early. It was a painful secret, mostly.” she explains.
Lydia felt similarly invalidated about grieving her chemical pregnancy, partly because of the lack of support groups tailored to her specific experience, “I think that’s a bit of a symbol of how society sees earlier losses, that they’re less important, that it’s not worthy of as much support, so I think people suffer in silence”, she says. “We grieved that but it’s how the world sees it that we found the most difficult.”
Lydia, who works in the mental health sector, says that she was never offered emotional support by healthcare professionals when discussing her miscarriages with them and although her and her husband were able to seek it out because of her professional background, she worries that this will not be the case for everyone.
Like Jo, she found a community online, reading forums and watching YouTube videos of people who were going through the same experience.
Ultimately, more research most be undertaken around miscarriages so health professionals know what support to offer and women do not have to rely on the internet, a resource that is not available to everyone, to get the help they need.
The UK stopped collecting national miscarriage data in 2012 – something that the charity, Tommy’s, are campaigning for the return of – and the lack of information about miscarriages is clear when it comes to conversations around chemical pregnancies, something most people have not heard of and do not know how to approach.
As Dr Larisa rightly says, “The real way we can all help is by being more willing to have these conversations and knowing how to offer support to someone facing this.”
If you have experienced a chemical pregnancy or a miscarriage, The Miscarriage Association offer support to those affected by miscarriage. They can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 01924 200799.