Fertility can come with many ups and downs, whether or not you were trying to get pregnant.

A reproductive health term you may have heard thrown around is “chemical pregnancy”.

What exactly is a chemical pregnancy you ask?

Simply put, a chemical pregnancy is a pregnancy loss or miscarriage that occurs before the fifth week of pregnancy. Some other terms for a chemical pregnancy are ‘trophoblast in regression’ and ‘pre-clinical embryo loss’.

In more clinical terms, this is when the embryo implants in the uterus, but never develops, or ‘takes hold’, resulting in a pregnancy loss. 

Why is it Called a Chemical Pregnancy?

This type of miscarriage is called a “chemical pregnancy” because of the detection of pregnancy hormones, or chemicals. In a chemical pregnancy, your body produces pregnancy hormones that can be detected on pregnancy tests but does not continue on to a viable pregnancy.

Many pregnancy tests use specific chemicals to determine pregnancy, if you had a positive result on one of these tests but then the pregnancy didn’t continue, it’s considered a “chemical pregnancy”.

This chemical, called hCG, is produced by your body when you’re pregnant. Low hCG levels can tell your provider whether or not you’ve had a chemical pregnancy. This can be detected with a blood or urine test.

This is different from a “clinical pregnancy” where your provider is able to see the fetus via ultrasound or detect it using other methods.

While chemical pregnancies may not have been easily detected in the past, they are easier to detect than ever with newer, more sensitive pregnancy tests. This technology allows people to detect a pregnancy three to four days before a missed period. 

Chemical Pregnancy vs Miscarriage

It may seem like the terms chemical pregnancy and miscarriage are used interchangeably, but the main distinction comes down to the length of gestation, or the amount of time spent pregnant before the pregnancy loss. 

While a chemical pregnancy is a type of miscarriage, not all miscarriages are chemical pregnancies. A miscarriage is considered a chemical pregnancy if the pregnancy loss occurs before five weeks gestation. 

Symptoms of a Chemical Pregnancy

Chemical pregnancies often happen before someone even realizes that they’re pregnant. This means you might not notice any symptoms, or you may just think that you’re having a more intense period than normal.  

One of the main ways people determine a chemical pregnancy is if they test negative on a pregnancy test after previously testing positive.

If you think you may be having or have had a chemical pregnancy, here are some symptoms to watch out for: 

  • Bleeding similar to a period
  • Heavier bleeding than a normal period
  • Period blood clots
  • Cramps
  • Spotting before your period

Although uncommon, in rare cases people may experience intense bleeding or haemorrhages. If this is you, seek medical care as soon as possible. 

Risk Factors for a Chemical Pregnancy

It’s difficult to determine just how common chemical pregnancies are because oftentimes people don’t even know that they’re pregnant in the first place.

Chemical pregnancies are especially common in people who are undergoing in vitro fertilization, IVF, or other sorts of fertility procedures. About one in four IVF pregnancies result in a chemical pregnancy. 

Some other risk factors that could increase the risk of a chemical pregnancy are:

  • Chromosomal abnormalities in embryo
  • Unhealthy sperm or damaged DNA
  • Damaged embryos during an IVF procedure
  • Advanced maternal age
  • Uterine abnormalities
  • Thyroid disorders
  • Sexually transmitted infections like chlamydia or gonorrhea 
  • Smoking and drinking alcohol

While there is nothing you can do to prevent a chemical pregnancy, you can increase your chance of having a healthy pregnancy by supporting yourself with a healthy diet, stress management, physical activity, and managing health disorders. 

Healing From a Chemical Pregnancy

Although you might not notice any physical differences in yourself after a chemical pregnancy, you may experience light bleeding and cramping in the days after. If you’re sensitive to hormone fluctuations, you might notice a slight difference in your mood or energy levels.

Your provider will most likely check to ensure that you don’t have an ectopic pregnancy, which could be dangerous to both you and the fetus. 

While it may seem discouraging to experience a chemical pregnancy, it could actually be a good sign, if you’ve experienced infertility in the past. People who had a chemical pregnancy after IVF actually had a higher chance of having a life birth on their second versus those who didn’t have a chemical pregnancy on their first try. 

After a miscarriage, you might not only need time to heal physically but emotionally as well. 

No matter when a pregnancy loss occurs, it can still be heartbreaking. If you are experiencing grief after a chemical pregnancy, there is no reason to feel guilt or shame, you are allowed to process this in whatever way you need to. 

Some great tools are community support, seeing a therapist who specializes in reproductive health issues or grief, and taking time to rest. 

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