Headaches during pregnancy may not get as much attention as other pregnancy-related symptoms like morning sickness and extreme fatigue, but they are common and can take their toll on your quality of life. Knowing what to look out for can make a big difference in reducing headaches during pregnancy.
Hormones May Not Be to Blame
Even if you don't usually get headaches, you may develop lots of headaches during pregnancy. Migraines, tension headaches or other types of headaches can occur at any time during your pregnancy, but they are more frequent during the first and third trimesters, according to the American Pregnancy Association. And whether you have a headache on the left side of your head or a headache behind your right eye while pregnant, it's unpleasant.
Some of the lifestyle changes that are recommended in pregnancy, such as reducing or eliminating your caffeine intake, may cause headaches. Also, both dehydration and missing meals can lead to headaches, says Brian M. Grosberg, MD, director of the Hartford HealthCare Ayer Neuroscience Institute Headache Center in West Hartford, Conn.
"When you are pregnant, you may not drink enough water and you may also skip meals because you are nauseated," Dr. Grosberg says. Plus, he says, "your sleep gets disrupted during pregnancy, which also increases risk for headaches."
Read more: What to Expect With Pregnancy, Week by Week
Headaches During Pregnancy: Special Considerations
Migraines are painful, often disabling headaches that may be accompanied by nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light, says the Migraine Research Foundation. "The good news for women who have a history of migraine is that pregnancy actually improves these headaches," Dr. Grosberg says. "Levels of the hormone estrogen rise during pregnancy, and this has a protective effect on migraine." However, this holds only for women whose migraines are not preceded by aura or visual disturbances such as flashing lights or a temporary vision loss.
Headaches may be a sign of preeclampsia, or high blood pressure during pregnancy, especially if they are accompanied by blurred vision, floating spots, sudden weight gain, upper right abdomen pain and swelling in the hands and face, according to the March of Dimes. When left untreated, preeclampsia can lead to life-threatening eclampsia, resulting in seizures. "If these symptoms occur with your headache, see your doctor to get your blood pressure checked immediately," Dr. Grosberg says.
Read more: 8 Surprising Things Giving You a Headache
Headaches During Pregnancy: Prevention Is Key
There are steps you can take before and during pregnancy to keep your headache pain to a minimum. "If you are prone to headaches, check in with your doctor before you become pregnant, if possible, to discuss medication-free strategies," suggests Dr. Grosberg.
"Drinking more water, eating small meals throughout the day and improving sleep hygiene by setting regular wake and bedtimes can make a difference," he says.
Other drug-free methods such as biofeedback — which involves placing sensors on your body to measure signs of stress in order to help you learn how to control it — may be helpful during pregnancy, notes the Mayo Clinic. Acupuncture is another option. During acupuncture, your practitioner places tiny needles in specific areas on your face, head and neck to restore energy flow and relieve migraine pain, the American Migraine Foundation explains.
Applying a cold towel on your head, taking a cold shower or napping can also help relieve migraine pain when pregnant, according to the American Pregnancy Association.
Some Meds May Be OK
Medication is not always out of the question. "Some headache medications are safe to use during pregnancy, but this decision must be made after weighing the risks and benefits with your obstetrician or headache specialist," Dr. Grosberg says. Your doctor may recommend acetaminophen.
Levels of magnesium in the blood of people who get migraines tend to be lower than those who don't get migraines, and magnesium supplements may be a safe way to prevent migraines during pregnancy. Magnesium oxide in doses up to 400 mg can be used safely in pregnancy, says the American Migraine Foundation.
Is This an Emergency?
- American Pregnancy Association: “Pregnancy and Headaches”
- March of Dimes: “Preeclampsia”
- American Migraine Foundation: “Spotlight on Acupuncture and Migraine”
- American Pregnancy Association: “Migraines During Pregnancy: Symptoms, Treatment & Medication”
- American Migraine Foundation: “Magnesium”
- Migraine Research Foundation: "Migraine Facts"
- Mayo Clinic: "Pregnancy Week By Week"