You’re expecting, and you find that your head sometimes (or often) pounds, or feels tight and heavy. Or possibly, you’re dealing with the misery of migraines. You may be wondering if this is normal, and if there’s anything you can do to ease the pain. Let’s take a look at headaches during pregnancy — why they happen, what you can do to feel better, and when you should call your doctor.
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Are Headaches During Pregnancy Normal?
Headaches are one of the most common side effects that women experience during pregnancy, especially in the first trimester and third trimesters (1). (We discuss headaches in our Week 9 Pregnancy post because they really are such a common occurrence.) It may not make you physically feel better — this knowledge can’t cure your headache, after all — but it may ease your mind to know that headaches are almost never anything to worry about in terms of safety for you or your baby.
You are most likely to experience headaches during pregnancy if you suffer from headaches before becoming pregnant. This may be especially true if you were prone to headaches during your periods (2). But even without predisposing factors, it’s still completely normal to find yourself grappling with them during your pregnancy.
Why Do Headaches Happen in Pregnancy?
In the first trimester, hormone changes and an increase in blood volume can contribute to headaches (1). Morning sickness can also lead to low blood sugar and dehydration, which can also cause headaches. Third trimester headaches are often caused by poor posture and tension from carrying extra weight (1), and sometimes from high blood pressure. Throughout pregnancy, things like stress, poor sleep, fatigue, and pregnancy-related vision changes can also contribute to the possibility of headaches.
Types of Headaches
There are several common types of headaches that occur during pregnancy. Let’s look at each one, their causes, and some remedies that may help you find relief.
Tension headaches can be a result of the muscles in your neck and head becoming tense and contracting. Some things that may contribute to tension headaches are stress, fatigue, heat, hunger or thirst, loud music, and bright lights (3).
How to Find Relief:
To relieve a tension headache, you need to relax the tense and contracted muscles in the head, neck, and shoulders. You can try:
- shoulder circles and other tension-reducing exercises
- a warm bath or shower
- massage of neck, shoulders, and base of skull
- a hot pack on your shoulders or back of neck (You can make your own microwavable heat pack with a sock and rice.)
Sinus headaches happen, as their name suggests, when your sinuses are clogged. When you’re not pregnant, you may associate sinus headaches with having a cold or a sinus infection. But a stuffy nose is one of the weird symptoms that often comes along with pregnancy. Elevated estrogen levels cause an increase of blood flow to all of your mucous membranes. This can result in swollen mucosal tissue and nasal congestion.
How to Find Relief:
With nasal congestion can come sinus pressure and sinus headaches. Relieving sinus pressure is a bit trickier than loosening up tense muscles. However, you can try:
- a cold compress on your forehead
- a warm compress over your nose and eyes
- a cold compress on the base of your neck
Migraine headaches are characterized by moderate to severe throbbing head pain. This may come with increased sensitivity to light, sound, or smells. It’s often accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and/or loss of appetite. A small percentage of women may even experience an aura, which is a temporary sensory disturbance that may include visual changes, numbness and tingling, or speech changes. Migraines can last for a few hours up to a few days (4).
The women most likely to suffer from migraine headaches during pregnancy are those who experience migraines when not pregnant. In some cases, women report having fewer migraines when pregnant. However, for some, they still occur or even increase (1). Nearly 20% of pregnant women report having a migraine at some point in pregnancy (3).
How to Find Relief:
There are some ways that you may be able to get relief from migraine headaches during pregnancy, or even avoid some migraines. These include staying hydrated and getting enough rest. Another key is to know your triggers. For some women, migraines are triggered by certain foods. The most common migraine triggers are: peanuts, chocolate, cheese, alcohol, MSG (monosodium glutamate,) and processed meats (1, 3). If a migraine has already set in, you may find the most relief by lying in a cool, dark room, and trying a cool pack on your head or neck.
When Headaches During Pregnancy May Be a Problem
While most headaches aren’t worrisome, there are some cases where pregnancy headaches signal a problem. High blood pressure in pregnancy is called preeclampsia or gestational hypertension. It tends to start late in pregnancy, after the 20th week. This complication can escalate and can be harmful to mom or baby, so communicate with your doctor or midwife if you have a severe, persistent headache in late pregnancy (2). Call immediately if you have a severe headache accompanied by blurred vision, sudden weight gain, pain in the upper right abdomen, or swelling in the hands and face (1).
Medicating Headaches During Pregnancy
In most cases, it is safe for a pregnant woman to take acetaminophen (Tylenol) during pregnancy (1). However, we always urge you to talk to your doctor or midwife before taking any medication, vitamin, or supplement. If you’ve tried the suggestions above and are not finding any relief from your headaches, it may be time to share your symptoms with your health care provider. He or she will let you know if your situation (your health, the other meds you take, your particular pregnancy) makes it okay for you to take medication.
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- Headaches During Pregnancy: The American Pregnancy Association. (2020, May 14). Retrieved July 16, 2020, from https://americanpregnancy.org/pregnancy-health/headaches-and-pregnancy/
- Barratt, J., Cross, C., Steel, S., & Biswas, C. (2016). The pregnancy encyclopedia: All your questions answered. London: Dorling Kindersley Limited.
- Curtis, G. B., & Schuler, J. (2016). Your pregnancy week by week. Cambridge, MA, MA: Da Capo Life Long.
- Hollowc2. (2020, February 18). Why Do Women Experience Pregnancy Headaches? Retrieved July 17, 2020, from https://health.clevelandclinic.org/why-do-women-experience-pregnancy-headaches/