Chemical Pregnancy vs. Miscarriage

What Is Chemical Pregnancy?

One of the signs of a chemical pregnancy is belly cramps.
One of the signs of a chemical pregnancy is belly cramps.

A chemical pregnancy is a miscarriage that happens before the fifth week of pregnancy. The embryo implants in your uterus but it never takes hold. The loss happens so early that you may not even know you're pregnant.

The name "chemical pregnancy" means you had a positive result on a test that uses chemicals to detect pregnancy. It's different from a "clinical pregnancy," which means your doctor can see your growing baby on an ultrasound.

You're more likely to learn that you had a chemical pregnancy today than women who had one in the past were. Newer pregnancy tests are so sensitive that they can detect a pregnancy 3 or 4 days before you miss a period.

More than half of all pregnancies end in miscarriage. Most of those are chemical pregnancies. But it's hard to know the exact number of chemical pregnancies women have. Many of these pregnancies end before a woman has any symptoms or misses a period. Most women who have a chemical pregnancy never know it.

Any miscarriage can be upsetting even when it's early in your pregnancy. If it happens to you, take time to heal and get the help you need to cope with the loss. This article can help you understand what happens with a chemical pregnancy and how you can get the kind of help you need.

What Are the Symptoms and Signs of Chemical Pregnancy?

Some women don't have any symptoms. Others test negative on a pregnancy test after they tested positive.

You might see signs like these:

  • Spotting a few days before your period is due
  • Belly cramps
  • Period-like bleeding
  • Clots in your period blood

Your doctor can confirm that you had a chemical pregnancy with a urine or blood test. These tests check the level of hCG, a hormone your body produces when you're pregnant. A low hCG level is a sign of a chemical pregnancy.

Is Chemical Pregnancy Common After IVF?

Chemical pregnancy is common after in vitro fertilization (IVF) and other fertility procedures. During IVF, the sperm fertilizes the egg in a lab. Then the fertility clinic staff implants the fertilized egg (embryo) in your uterus.

Once the embryo is in your uterus, it starts to release hCG. This will produce a positive pregnancy test result, but the embryo doesn't always develop.

Up to 1 in 4 IVF pregnancies is a chemical pregnancy. This high number may result from doctors doing pregnancy tests very early -- within 2 weeks after an IVF procedure.

What Causes a Chemical Pregnancy?

Doctors don't know the exact reasons, but the causes may be the same as for other types of miscarriage. Most often, a problem with the chromosomes in the embryo causes miscarriage. It's also possible that the lining of the uterus is too thin for the embryo to implant. Or, there may be a problem with the DNA in the sperm.

In assisted pregnancies that use frozen embryos, damage may happen to the embryo during the freezing process.

Could a Chemical Pregnancy Affect My Fertility?

A chemical pregnancy shouldn't affect your fertility. The fact that you had a positive pregnancy test is actually a good sign. It means that you can get pregnant again in the future. In studies, women who had a chemical pregnancy after IVF had a higher chance of getting pregnant on their next try.

What Is the Treatment for Chemical Pregnancy?

You don't need to treat a chemical pregnancy. But you should have a follow-up visit with your doctor to make sure you don't have an ectopic pregnancy -- an embryo that grows outside of your uterus. An ectopic pregnancy can also cause a positive pregnancy test result. This type of pregnancy can be very dangerous to you if it continues.

During the visit, your doctor can check your health and talk to you about your odds of getting pregnant in the future. Ask when it is safe for you to start trying again.

How Do I Recover After a Chemical Pregnancy?

Any kind of miscarriage can be hard on both you and your partner. Even a very early pregnancy can be a big loss, especially if you've tried to get pregnant for a long time or you went through IVF. Emotional support is very important at this time.

Give your body time to get over the pregnancy loss. You may have some cramping and bleeding for a few days afterward. Your emotional recovery can take even longer. Friends, family, and your spiritual advisor can help you through the grieving process.

If you feel overwhelmed by grief, talk to your doctor. You may need to see a mental health provider to help you get over the loss.

References
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Endocrine Society: "Human Chorionic Gonadotropin Hormone (HCG)."

Fertility and Sterility: "Early pregnancy loss in in vitro fertilization (IVF) is a positive predictor of subsequent IVF success."

Journal of Clinical Medicine Research: "Biochemical pregnancy during assisted conception: A little bit pregnant."

March of Dimes: "Miscarriage."

Mayo Clinic: "Ectopic pregnancy," "In vitro fertilization (IVF)."

Miscarriage Association: "Chemical pregnancy."