Experiencing a headache during pregnancy is common and not usually a cause for concern. Home remedies can often help soothe the pain.
Pregnancy causes several significant changes in the body, many of which can give rise to individual symptoms. Changes in hormones and blood volume, as well as poor posture due to increased body weight, are all common factors.
Some of these changes can also result in headaches, for which a range of home remedies are available. However, anyone experiencing troubling or severe symptoms should seek medical treatment. A doctor can usually determine the specific cause.
In this article, we discuss the causes, symptoms, and treatment of headaches during pregnancy.
The female body experiences several quick and drastic changes during pregnancy, which may lead to a few different symptoms. Headaches are a common symptom during pregnancy.
Research suggests that 39% of women will experience headaches during or just after pregnancy.
The exact cause of a headache during pregnancy may vary based on the trimester.
The following sections will discuss some likely causes of headaches during pregnancy, some of which are more common in certain trimesters.
During the first trimester of pregnancy, a woman’s body goes through several drastic changes in a short space of time. The body experiences a large influx of hormones, along with an increase in the amount of blood. Rapid weight gain may also occur.
Together, these changes may make certain types of headache, such as tension headaches, more likely. Some other pregnancy symptoms may also influence these headaches or make them worse.
Common issues that could cause or worsen a headache include:
- nausea and vomiting
- high stress levels
- poor nutrition
- low blood sugar
- lack of sleep
- changes in vision
- light sensitivity, which may trigger migraine
- a sedentary lifestyle
Additionally, a pregnant woman may have some trigger foods that cause irritation or symptoms such as headaches. These trigger foods may vary among individuals, but some common culprits include dairy products and chocolate.
Second and third trimesters
In the second and third trimesters, a woman may be less likely to experience headaches due to hormonal changes, as the body has usually adjusted to these changes by this stage of pregnancy.
However, some women continue to experience tension headaches from hormonal changes throughout their pregnancy.
In the later stages of pregnancy, symptoms such as headaches are more likely to be due to:
- excess weight
- high blood pressure
- muscle strain
- poor posture
- insufficient sleep
- poor diet
Hypertension during pregnancy
Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is a common experience for many pregnant women. Some will experience a condition called preeclampsia, which occurs when someone who usually has normal blood pressure levels suddenly develops high blood pressure after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that 1 in 25 pregnant women in the United States will develop preeclampsia. Preeclampsia increases the risk of many medical emergencies, including seizures and stroke. The condition may also reduce the oxygen flow to the fetus.
A common symptom of preeclampsia is a headache that will not go away. Some other symptoms include:
- changes in vision, such as blurred vision or seeing spots
- nausea or vomiting
- sudden weight gain
- pain in the upper stomach or abdomen
- difficulty breathing
- swelling in the face or hands
These symptoms do not occur in every case of preeclampsia, which is one of the reasons why it is important to check in regularly with a doctor throughout pregnancy.
Headaches during pregnancy can manifest in various ways. For example, they can cause different types and levels of pain.
Medically speaking, headaches are either primary or secondary. Primary headaches are not a symptom of a health condition, whereas secondary headaches occur when an underlying condition is the cause. Secondary headaches usually lead to a number of other symptoms.
The sections below will discuss several types of headache that are common during pregnancy.
Tension headaches are the most common type of headache during pregnancy. In fact, a 2017 review in the Journal of Headache and Pain notes that 26% of all headaches that occur during pregnancy are tension headaches.
Tension headaches cause mild-to-moderate pain in the head. Many people describe the pain as feeling as though they have a tight band around their head.
A migraine headache often begins as a dull ache that grows into a piercing, throbbing pain, which may or may not radiate. A person may also be very sensitive to light, noise, and some smells. Migraine episodes might also cause other symptoms, such as dizziness or nausea.
Cluster headaches cause a severe “stabbing” pain, typically on one side of the head and around the eye. A person may also notice some other symptoms, such as nasal congestion, watery eyes, or swelling in the area.
In many cases, home remedies can help soothe a primary headache during pregnancy. Some home remedies that may be effective include:
- applying a cold or warm compress to the area for 10 minutes at a time
- taking a warm bath to release muscle tension
- doing mild exercises, such as yoga, swimming, or tai chi
- sitting or standing with better posture
- taking frequent breaks away from screens
- drinking plenty of water throughout the day
- getting plenty of rest
- getting a gentle head massage
- resting in a dark area
Keeping a food journal to track what they eat each day may also help a woman identify and eliminate any headache triggers.
If possible, pregnant women should aim to manage any unpleasant symptoms with home remedies or talk to their doctor about medical options, if necessary.
What to avoid
During pregnancy, it is essential to avoid over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen (Advil) or aspirin.
A review in the Annals of Epidemiology notes that women who take NSAIDs while pregnant are more likely to give birth to babies with congenital abnormalities.
Some women take acetaminophen (Tylenol) while pregnant, although there is a concern that this may also affect the baby.
A recent study in the journal JAMA Psychiatry found that children born to women who take acetaminophen during pregnancy are more likely to be autistic or have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
However, there is a need for more research into this connection before health experts can make any broad claims. Many people still view acetaminophen as the safest drug choice for women during pregnancy.
Although headaches during pregnancy are common, it may sometimes be necessary to see a doctor.
Anyone experiencing severe or continuous headaches that do not respond to home remedies should schedule an appointment with their doctor.
Similarly, anyone experiencing other troubling symptoms — such as dizziness or changes in vision — should seek diagnosis and treatment. A doctor may be able to recommend a treatment that is safe for both the woman and the fetus.
Headaches during pregnancy can be uncomfortable, but they are not usually a cause for concern.
Pregnancy causes a number of significant changes within the body, which may lead to symptoms such as headaches. However, it is important to find treatments that are safe for the fetus.
Secondary headaches that occur due to an underlying issue may be dangerous. Anyone who is uncertain about their symptoms or experiences troubling or severe symptoms should see a doctor for diagnosis and treatment.