Pregnancy Headaches

Pregnant woman with headache

Pregnancy headaches seem to be more common recently. Most of the time, they are not serious at all and can be taken care of in a safe way.

Common Causes of Pregnancy Headaches

Pregnancy headaches seem to occur more often in the first trimester, and sometimes this is a woman's first experience with a headache. Pregnant women may also experience other types of headaches such as cluster headaches, sinus headaches, or headaches caused by other rare problems. If you are unsure about a headache, it is important to see your OB care provider to get an accurate diagnosis.

Common causes of pregnancy headaches, according to the American Pregnancy Association, include:

  • Hormone changes in early pregnancy. Increasing levels of estrogen and hCG can contribute to headaches. Sometimes, if women have had headaches on the birth control pill, they experience headaches the first few months of pregnancy.
  • Not getting enough rest can be a contributing factor to headaches. Drinking warm milk before bedtime and playing peaceful music can help you relax and sleep more easily.
  • Many changes in your blood circulation occur in pregnancy. By mid-pregnancy, you have 40-60 percent more fluid in your body than when you aren't pregnant. This can cause increased pressure on your body's blood vessels. Not drinking enough water can lead to dehydration; pregnant women should drink at least eight glasses of water a day.
  • Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) is related to needing more protein in your body and appropriate sugar.
  • Stress and anxiety from upcoming family changes or concerns about the pregnancy cause some women to develop stress headaches. This is also a time when they might worry about finances and other issues. A good solution for this is taking time to relax and be peaceful every day.
  • Some women notice caffeine or sugar withdrawal if they cut back on their coffee, chocolate, soda, or sugar intake while pregnant. It's best to taper off gradually from these things rather than suddenly.

Various Types of Pregnancy Headaches

Tension Headaches

WebMD reports that tension headaches are the most common type of headache. They are often described as a squeezing pain on both sides of the head. They're most often caused by lack of sleep, depression, or caffeine withdrawal. Changes in pregnancy hormones may also cause tension headaches. Making an effort to relax, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep will often reduce the number of headaches. If headaches do occur, try treating them with extra rest, a shoulder massage, or a warm washcloth on the face. Tylenol is usually considered safe and may be used to treat headaches that do not improve with other measures.

Migraine Headaches

About three out of four migraine sufferers are women, acccording to National Womens Health Resource Center. Migraine headaches cause a severe throbbing pain on one (or occasionally both) sides of the head. The exact cause of migraines is not known, but it is thought that they result from changes in blood flow in the brain. Migraines may occur with other symptoms, such as nausea and sensitivity to light or loud noises. Some people experience an "aura" a few minutes before a migraine attack. During the aura, the person may have problems seeing normally (such as seeing lines or flashing lights), speech problems, or a tingling sensation in her hands or face.

Migraine headaches usually occur less frequently in pregnancy, especially after the first trimester. Some women find that their migraine headaches worsen or stay the same while they are pregnant. Some people are able to reduce the number of migraine attacks by avoiding common triggers and getting the right amount of sleep. If you need medication for migraine headaches while you are pregnant or nursing, discuss the use of prescription medication with your OB health care provider. Some drugs normally used for migraine headaches are not recommended in pregnancy, so your provider might have other recommendations.

High Blood Pressure in Pregnancy (PIH)

A severe headache in the second or third trimester can be a warning sign of high blood pressure in pregnancy, also called Pregnancy Induced Hypertension (PIH) or preeclampsia. This is a rare condition that affects about five to ten percent of pregnancies. Headaches caused by PIH are persistent and throbbing, and the American Pregnancy Association reports that along with a headache, women might experience blurry vision, sudden weight gain of excessive fluids, increased swelling in the hands and face, and sometimes pain in the upper right abdomen. If you have any of these symptoms, or if you get a headache that is different than normal, call your OB health provider immediately.

Safe Things to Help Your Headaches

Many women prefer to steer clear of any medication not prescribed by their doctor during pregnancy, but Mayo Clinic outlines safe options besides pills to relieve your aching head:

  1. Keep a "headache diary" to help identify specific triggers. Write down anything you've eaten in the 24 hours preceding the onset of a migraine and what you were doing when it started. Some common migraine triggers include foods that contain monosodium glutamate (MSG), nitrites (common in processed meats like hot dogs, salami, and bacon), sulfites (used as a preservative for salads and also found in many dried fruits), artificial sweeteners, certain beans and nuts, aged cheese and cultured dairy products (like buttermilk yogurt and sour cream), certain fresh fruits (bananas, papayas, avocados, and citrus), smoked fish, chocolate and carob, things that are fermented or pickled (like soy sauce or sauerkraut or breads with fresh yeast) glaring or flickering lights, loud noises, excessive heat or cold, strong odors, alcohol and tobacco smoke.
  2. For tension headaches, apply a warm or cool compress to your forehead or the base of your neck. Cold compresses tend to work best for migraines.
  3. A simple but effective remedy for some migraines, a cold shower works by constricting the dilated blood vessels, often bringing fast, if brief, relief. If you can't take a shower, splash some cool water on your face. A warm shower or bath can be soothing for tension headaches.
  4. If you have the time and money, by all means get a full-body massage from a trained therapist. Ask your partner to rub your back and head, or slip into a salon for a professional shampoo. Massage works especially well on headaches caused by tension that builds in the neck, shoulder, and back muscles.
  5. Eat smaller, more frequent meals with protein help to keep your blood sugar more stable. Drink plenty of water to stay well hydrated. Sip water slowly if you have a migraine and have vomited.
  6. Try to make room for naps in your day. If you're having a migraine, try to sleep it off in a quiet, dark room, and play peaceful music.
  7. Some evidence shows that regular exercise can reduce the frequency and severity of migraines and reduce the stress that can cause tension headaches. But get started slowly, since a sudden burst of activity could trigger a migraine.
  8. Meditation, yoga and biofeedback are helpful in reducing stress and headaches in some sufferers.
  9. Needle acupuncture treatment is considered safe during pregnancy and may be effective for headaches, according to the National Institutes of Health. Ask your healthcare provider for the names of any licensed practicioners in your area.

When to Call Your OB Provider

  • You are in your second or third trimester and have a bad headache or a headache for the first time that may or may not be accompanied by visual changes, sharp upper abdominal pain, sudden weight gain, or swelling in your hands or face. You'll need your blood pressure and urine checked right away to be sure you don't have PIH.
  • You have a sudden "explosive" headache, violent pain that awakens you from sleep, a headache that doesn't go away, or one that feels unlike any you've ever experienced before.
  • Your headache is accompanied by a fever and a stiff neck.
  • Your headache is getting worse and you experience other problems such as blurry vision or other visual disturbances, slurred speech, drowsiness, numbness, or a change in normal sensation or alertness.
  • You have a headache after falling and hitting your head, or after any other kind of head injury.
  • You have nasal congestion, pain and pressure underneath your eyes, other facial or even dental pain. You might have a sinus infection that will need to be treated with antibiotics.

Even if you've had headaches before, talk about your pregnancy headaches with your healthcare provider so she can decide what kind of evaluation and treatment might be best for you during your pregnancy. If you feel like your eyes are straining and notice that you get headaches after reading or looking at a computer screen, have your vision checked by an eye doctor. Finally, don't hesitate to call whenever a headache just has you worried.

Pregnancy Headaches