Sympathy pain is a term that refers to feeling physical or psychological symptoms from witnessing someone else’s discomfort.

Such feelings are most often talked about during pregnancy, where a person might feel like they’re sharing the same pains as their pregnant partner. The medical term for this phenomenon is known as couvade syndrome.

While not an official health condition, couvade syndrome is, in fact, extremely common.

Recent research published in the American Journal of Men’s Health found that between 25 and 72 percent of expectant fathers worldwide experience couvade syndrome.

Sympathy pains have been widely researched and supported in relation to pregnancy. There are also anecdotal cases where individuals believe they experience pain in other situations.

This pain doesn’t pose any danger, but it’s worth considering the science to help explain this phenomenon. A mental health professional can also help you work through the feelings that may be causing your sympathy pains.

Sympathy pains are most commonly associated with couvade syndrome, which occurs when a person experiences many of the same symptoms as their pregnant partner. Such discomfort is most common during the first and third trimesters. It’s thought that feelings of stress, as well as empathy, may play a role.

However, sympathy pains aren’t always exclusive to pregnancy. This phenomenon could also occur in individuals who have deep connections with friends and family members who might be going through an unpleasant experience.

Sometimes, sympathy pains can also occur among strangers. If you see someone who is in physical pain or mental anguish, it’s possible to empathize and feel similar sensations. Other examples include feeling discomfort after seeing images or videos of others in pain.

While not a recognized health condition, there’s a great deal of scientific research to support the existence of couvade syndrome. This is especially the case with individuals whose partners are pregnant. Other instances of sympathy pain are more anecdotal.

Some studies are also investigating more medical instances of sympathy pain. One such study published in 1996 examined patients with carpal tunnel and found that some experienced similar symptoms in the opposite, unaffected hand.

The precise cause of sympathy pains is unknown. While not regarded as a mental health condition, it’s thought that couvade syndrome and other types of sympathy pains may be psychological.

Some studies indicate that couvade syndrome and other causes of sympathy pains may be more prominent in individuals who have a history of mood disorders.

Sympathy pains and pregnancy

Pregnancy can cause a variety of emotions for any couple, which is often a combination of excitement and stress. Some of these emotions may play a role in the development of your partner’s sympathy pains.

In the past, there were other psychology-based theories surrounding couvade syndrome. One was based on males experiencing jealousy over their pregnant female partners. Another unfounded theory was the fear of a possibly marginalized role through parenthood.

Some researchers believe sociodemographic factors could play a role in the development of couvade syndrome. However, more studies need to be conducted on this front to determine whether these types of risk factors can predict whether someone might experience sympathy pains during pregnancy.

Couvade syndrome and pseudocyesis

Another pregnancy-related theory is that couvade syndrome may occur alongside pseudocyesis, or phantom pregnancy. Recognized by the new edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, phantom pregnancy is defined as experiencing pregnancy symptoms without actually being pregnant.

The experience of a phantom pregnancy is so strong that others may believe the person is pregnant and then experience couvade syndrome.

Empathetic personality

It’s thought that empathy could play a role with couvade syndrome and other instances of sympathy pain. An individual who is naturally more empathetic might be more likely to have sympathy pains in response to someone else’s discomfort.

For example, seeing someone get hurt could cause physical sensations as you empathize with their pain. You might also feel changes in your mood based on how others are feeling.

If you’re pregnant, and you suspect your partner might be experiencing couvade syndrome, they might exhibit the following symptoms:

  • abdominal pain and discomfort
  • aches in the back, teeth, and legs
  • anxiety
  • appetite changes
  • bloating
  • depression
  • excitement
  • food cravings
  • heartburn
  • insomnia
  • leg cramps
  • libido issues
  • nausea
  • restlessness
  • urinary or genital irritation
  • weight gain

There’s no treatment available for couvade syndrome. Instead, it’s important to focus on anxiety and stress management techniques. These may include relaxation, a healthy diet, and regular exercise.

If anxiety or depression from couvade syndrome interferes with your loved one’s daily routine, encourage them to seek help from a mental health professional. Talk therapy may help your partner work through the stresses of pregnancy.

While sympathy pains are still being researched, it’s thought that the symptoms resolve once your partner’s pain and discomfort start to dissipate. For example, symptoms of couvade syndrome may resolve on their own once the baby is born.

Other types of sympathy pain may also stem from empathy and are regarded as a psychological phenomenon. If you have long-lasting sympathy pain or are experiencing long-term changes in mood, see your doctor for advice.