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Headaches during Pregnancy

Almost all women experience varying degrees of headache at some point during their pregnancy. According to old wives’ tales, having recurring headache means you are having a boy; however, there are no scientific evidence to prove it.

Are headaches a common sign of pregnancy

Headache is one of the common early pregnancy symptoms [1] occurring during the first trimester, along with other symptoms such as nausea, joint and jaw pain and constipation/diarrhea.

What causes headaches during pregnancy

Apart from the usual causes like allergies, fasting and gas, factors like fatigue, lack of sleep, certain vitamin and mineral (folic acid, magnesium) deficiencies [8], caffeine withdrawal [3] and being in a congested or noisy place [2] may trigger headache in a pregnant woman.

Headache during early pregnancy

The hormonal changes occurring in the body [1], as well as the increasing blood volume [28], are believed to play a vital role in bringing on the pain, especially early in the first trimester. The changing estrogen levels are specifically believed to trigger migraine headaches [29].

Vomiting due to morning sickness may sometimes lead to dehydration, which may cause a headache [5], often along with other symptoms like nausea, dry mouth, constipation and dark urine [30, 31].

Headache occurring during the first trimester generally subsides on its own once you enter the second trimester [1] as the hormone levels begin to gradually settle down.

Headache later in pregnancy

Bad posture, from the pressure of carrying the growing baby, may worsen the pain toward the end of pregnancy [1]. Headaches in the third trimester may also be caused by preeclampsia which needs immediate medical intervention [25].

Chronic (Constant or Frequent) headaches

Tension headache

Women often experience a constant dull ache or a squeezing pain [3] on the lower back of the head and neck, on the top of the head or one/both sides resulting from the stress, anxiety, tension and even depression associated with pregnancy.

What to do: Relax, apply cold compress to ease the pain [9]

Sinus headache

Persistent throbbing pain in the forehead, extending to the cheekbones and the bony nasal bridge, worsening with sudden movement of the head [32]. Symptoms include swelling or tenderness of the face, congested/runny nose and fever [7, 33].

Common causes: Viral or bacterial infections, allergies

What to do: Warm compresses over the forehead, nasal irrigation with saline (neti pot). Consult your doctor about safe OTC painkillers or nasal sprays.

Migraine

Moderate to extreme pulsing pain, usually only on one side of your head that gets worse with physical activity and may last from few hours to few days [34]. Symptoms include sensitivity to light and vomiting. The pain may be preceded by “aura” that may include tingling, blurred vision, sense of flashing lights and nausea [34]

Common triggers: Chocolates, preserved meat, peanuts and old cheese

What to do: Rest in a dark room, apply ice packs, massage to relax the muscles [24]. Consult your doctor about safe OTC painkillers

Sudden, Acute, Severe headaches

Preeclampsia

Persistent, throbbing pain that begins suddenly [35] and worsens over time, occurring along with other symptoms like dizziness, upper right abdominal pain, sudden weight gain, swelling of hands [36]

Flu

Sudden, considerable headache, often extending around the eyes, along with a fever, fatigue, dry cough, red watery eyes, flushed skin and even diarrhea [38].

Prevention: Flu shot (after consulting your doctor)

What to do: Proper sleep and rest

Cluster headache [4]

Sudden, sharp or burning pain on one side of your head, typically felt around the temple or eye (sometimes extending to the face) [37]. Cluster headaches usually cause recurrent attacks in the same area, often at night with an intense pain waking you up in the middle of the night [6].

How to get rid of a headache while pregnant

Home remedies for managing the pain

  • Try to relax: Lie down in a quiet room and keep your eyes closed. You may also try putting on some soothing music if that relaxes you.
  • Warm/cold Compress: Apply a warm compress (e.g. warm towel) on the face, temples and eyes [14] as it relaxes tightened muscles. You can also try a cold compress (an ice pack) on the back of the head and neck as it reduces the blood pressure by constricting the blood vessels
  • Massage: Get a prenatal massage for relaxing the shoulders, neck and temples [12]
  • Aromatherapy: Aromatherapy with essential oils may help to deal with the pain but, use it only after consulting your physician, especially in the first trimester. Rubbing some lavender or peppermint oil [16] on the temples and forehead, or putting a few drops on a handkerchief and breathing it in may provide some relief from persistent headaches. However, it should only be used occasionally with no more than 3 drops of oil being recommended [11].

Most herbal headache remedies, like butterbur and feverfew are usually not recommended for pregnant women [14] as they may lead to complications including preterm contractions and labor [11].

Acupuncture and Homeopathy

Although acupuncture is a safe procedure [18] to have for reducing migraine and other headaches [17], make sure to consult a certified practitioner to avoid any risk or complications in pregnancy.

Homeopathic treatment options usually vary with the type of headache. Consult your gynecologist to know about its safety during the pregnancy [22].

What medicines can you take for a headache while pregnant

An overdose of any painkiller may lead to various health problems and complications like kidney and liver damage [19]. So, make sure to consult your physician regarding the safety and dosage of all medications.

Safe painkillers

Tylenol (acetaminophen) is considered relatively safe to take during pregnancy, providing a quick pain relief [21].

Medicines to avoid

There is a lack of studies on human pregnancy regarding the effects of NSAIDs (Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) such as ibuprofen (Advil and Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve). Although included in Category C for the first and second trimesters, they may increase the chances of blood pressure abnormalities in the baby and even miscarriage [20] if taken in the third trimester. Using aspirin late in pregnancy may also cause severe hemorrhage in the mother during childbirth.

Tips to prevent headache when pregnant

  • Avoid triggers: Keep track of what triggers your headache episodes and try to avoid them. [10]
  • Regular light work-out routine: Moderate aerobic exercises, walking or prenatal yoga
  • Managing your stress levels: Spend time with family and friends, practice calming techniques such as deep breathing or sign up for biofeedback classes [14].
  • Proper eating habits: Avoid staying hungry for extended periods. Eat smaller meals at short intervals instead of three large meals [11].
  • Plenty of rest: Follow a proper sleep schedule [13].

Drinking lots of fluids to stay hydrated [12] and maintaining a good posture [13] can also help.

When to call the doctor

Call a doctor if you experience:

  • Sudden, severe headache of an unknown cause
  • Chronic headache of an unknown cause (it could be brain tumor or other underlying disease
  • Fever
  • Lower abdominal contractions, as they may indicate a urinary tract infection [23].
  • Drowsiness or other impairment of consciousness
  • Persistent headache after an injury

ICD-9 and ICD-10 Codes

ICD-9 codes: 339, 784.0 [26]

ICD-10 codes: G43-G44, R51 [27]

Published on October 20th 2013 by under Common Issues.
Article was last reviewed on 20th October 2013.

  • Comments

      3 Responses to Headaches during Pregnancy

      1. Billsl says:

        Hi my wife is experiencing severe headaches followed by vomitting at night we are in the second trimester our baby is about week 18…we went to see a doctor twice with no help the pain reliever is not working. What’s wrong with here

        • Pregmed Editorial Team says:

          Are the headaches only occurring at night or does she have them throughout the day as well? If your doctor thinks there is nothing to worry about, then probably everything is fine. However, you could consider checking with another doctor just in case. It could not hurt to have a second opinion, seeing that severe headaches in the second trimester might be an early sign of certain serious complications. Hope everything turns out well, all the best.

      2. Pingback: Pregnancy can be a real pain in the head! 15 Cures For Your Headache In Pregnancy | Yoga Janda

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