The idea of a chemical pregnancy is relatively new to reproductive science and a product of the advancement of home pregnancy tests. While a chemical pregnancy technically refers to an unsuccessful attempt to conceive, the phrase does not need to carry the weight of dashed hopes and unrealized dreams. It’s actually a pretty good sign for couples trying to make a baby. Here’s what you need to know.
What Is a Chemical Pregnancy?
The incredible efficacy of modern home pregnancy tests means that women can learn they are pregnant up to a week before a missed period. These tests measure the presence of the hormone Human Chorionic Gonadotropin (hCG) in urine. The hormone is produced by the placenta and only reaches detectable levels in the urine after an egg has been fertilized and implanted in the womb.
“What happens is that fertilization will occur, the egg will start implantation, and then it will stop developing. But it may have developed enough hCG that a test would be positive,” says Mary Jane Minkin, M.D., Clinical Professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences at Yale University School of Medicine. However, because the egg has stopped developing, the uterine lining will still shed during the next menstrual cycle. So although the conditions to create a positive pregnancy test were met, the pregnancy was just “chemical.”
“I hate to use the term chemical pregnancy, because the patient really was pregnant,” explains Minkin. “That sperm and that egg got together. It’s just unfortunate that it didn’t go on developing.”
Getting Pregnant After a Chemical Pregnancy
A chemical pregnancy is usually not associated with the physical trauma of later-term miscarriage, but that doesn’t make it any less difficult. For couples trying to conceive, getting a positive pregnancy test only to find that the egg was lost can be an emotional blow and a setback to baby-making morale.
“Women sometimes get very depressed when they’ve had a pregnancy that started and then stopped,” says Minkin. “In the old days they would have never been aware of that. They may not have noticed anything more than a heavier than normal period.”
But Minkin notes that a chemical pregnancy can be a good sign. She notes that getting pregnant is a complicated process. A great deal has to go right between the time an egg is released and the time it is implanted and develops into a viable embryo. In fact, many couples due to fertility issues never even reach the fertilization or implantation stage. So getting an indication that implantation has occurred through an early positive pregnancy test is a good step in the right direction, despite it being a chemical pregnancy.
“There may have been a mistake in the genetics or the way that egg and sperm got together wasn’t perfect,” says Minkin. “But that gives you very good implications about your future fertility. You got pretty far; we just need to get you to the next step.”
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