Picture for a moment that first positive pregnancy test you took around week four, the excitement and happiness at knowing you’re going to be a mum. Maybe you just started trying and didn’t realise you’d catch so quickly or maybe, like me, you had been trying for months and had experienced months of negatives. Either way, when you want a baby and you get a positive test it’s a thrilling moment for sure.
Remember now, a few days later when you woke up feeling queasy and thought “oh this is morning sickness” and perhaps then you were sick and felt reassured that you were “normal” and the pregnancy was progressing. Sure puking up isn’t much fun but, hey, it makes you part of the club and it’s worth it the precious new life growing inside you. Most pregnant women, around 80% will suffer some degree of nausea and/or vomiting in the first 12 weeks and it’s a reassuring sign for most.
That’s what the first week of pregnancy was like for me. Except that once I started throwing up I didn’t stop… For months and months. That first morning I woke up and spewed, my husband and I laughed, excited about the pregnancy. Except the spewing didn’t stop, it went on and on and over the next three days alone I was sick over 75 times. My excitement and happiness were rapidly replaced with fear, misery and depression.
We went to the doctor and despite my determination to be a natural “earth mother” with no medication or any potentially harmful substance anywhere near my growing baby, I accepted the prescription he handed me and cried and cried the first time I took a pill. I felt weak and pathetic. I felt ashamed. I felt scared. The treatment didn’t help, although it did make me sleep. By week 8 I was in hospital being rehydrated on an IV drip. Rehydrated and on the new medication that was making me confused and anxious. I discharged myself from hospital and by the time I got home I had vomited continuously for the torturous 40 minute car journey.
So what was happening to me, why was I so sick? This isn’t normal, this isn’t morning sickness. This is hyperemesis gravidarum!
Hyperemesis gravidarum, or HG as it’s known by it’s sufferers, is a serious complication of pregnancy characterised by severe vomiting and near-constant nausea, significant weight loss and dehydration. The nausea alone can be so severe that it can cause dehydration and/or malnutrition. Unlike “normal” pregnancy sickness it is rarely over by 12 weeks. Most women with HG see a bit of improvement around 20 weeks and some will recover entirely at that point. But for 60% of HG sufferers the symptoms are still going on right up to and during labour.
And HG doesn’t just bring nausea and vomiting in excess. Women suffer excessive saliva, extremely heightened sense of smell, headaches, acid reflux and various other symptoms. The excessive vomiting and retching can cause tears in the oesophagus, hiatus hernias, stomach pains, constipation, loss of bladder control and all sorts of other unpleasant side effects.
Perhaps the most profound side effects of HG though is the mental toll that months of isolation and feeling mis-understood can cause. Along with the trauma caused by the actual vomiting and continuous nausea it’s hardly any wonder that peri-natal depression and post-traumatic stress disorder is common among sufferers.
So what can you do if you are suffering hyperemesis gravidarum? First and foremost seek help. If your first attempts to seek treatment are met with unhelpful remarks from your doctor then get in touch with national charity Pregnancy Sickness Support who can point you towards an “HG friendly” doctor in your area. There are a number of safe and effective treatments available for HG. Some women will have complete relief from symptoms with the first line of medication but sadly for many women getting the right treatment is a matter of trial and error and although there are treatments which can help you manage your symptoms, as yet, there is no actual cure for HG.
Therefore, a major part of “surviving” is to do with getting sufficient psychological and emotional support. Unfortunately, like many low-profile and misunderstood conditions, particularly those that vary in severity from person to person, if you haven’t actually suffered it yourself it can be near on impossible to understand the experience of the sufferer. It’s for that reason, through my work with the charity Pregnancy Sickness Support, we have pioneered a peer support network where volunteers who have been through HG themselves provide one-to-one support to women suffering now.
The Charity also has an online forum where you can get support and chat to other pregnant women suffering at the moment.
When I was suffering for the first time in 2007 there was no (findable) support available in the UK and it was difficult for sufferers to find each other and make contact. Furthermore, there was no UK books about the condition and knowledge amongst healthcare professionals was even poorer than it is now. This is really improving now and in addition to the support available, the first ever UK book will soon be out. I have co-authored Hyperemesis Gravidarum – The Definitive Guide with my colleague Amanda Shortman. The book, which covers every aspect of HG from the causes and treatments to recovering from HG and information for partners, is due out in September. You can sign up to receive an alert when it’s available to purchase by clicking here and filling in your email at the bottom of the page.
You’ll also find a wealth of information on my blog Spewing Mummy all about HG. There are posts on everything from advocating with healthcare professionals to What Not To Say to a Woman With Hyperemesis. If you are suffering now then check it out and rest assured you are not alone.
About Caitlin Dean: A three-time hyperemesis gravidarum survivor and a Registered General Nurse she is passionately dedicated to raising awareness about HG and providing support to sufferers. She is a trustee for the charity PSS and a national spokespersons for HG. She has just returned to her Cornish farm after 6 months of travelling around North America with her husband and three small kids.