Postpartum headache affects many people within the first few weeks after giving birth.

Modifiable factors, such as nutrient deficiencies, and nonmodifiable factors, like hormonal changes, may contribute to postpartum headaches.

This article discusses the causes and treatment of postpartum headache.

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After having a baby, chemical and social changes can cause postpartum headaches. These may include hormonal changes, sleep deprivation, and nutrient deficiency. Stress may also play an important role in the increase of headaches after giving birth.

Postpartum headaches range from mild to severe. With mild or moderate postpartum headaches, people may treat them with over-the-counter painkillers. Severe postpartum headaches from changes in blood clotting and preeclampsia can be life threatening.

Learn more about headaches.

People may experience different symptoms depending on the type of headache. Some symptoms of postpartum headaches include:

However, certain types of postpartum headaches may be life threatening and require immediate medical attention. Some red flags for severe postpartum headaches include:

  • fever
  • confusion
  • seizures
  • head trauma
  • waking up during sleep due to pain
  • pain from coughing or exertion

Learn more about concerning headache symptoms.

Not all postpartum headaches require a visit to the doctor. However, certain headache symptoms require immediate attention. It is important to seek medical guidance if headaches affect quality of life or activities of daily living.

Signs and symptoms that require immediate attention include:

Some causes of postpartum headaches are uncontrollable. Others require awareness of the lifestyle changes with a newborn. A lack of sleep, proper nutrition, and increased stress can all contribute to headaches.

Injuries to the head may also lead to postpartum headaches.

The most common cause of postpartum headache is primary headache disorders such as migraine, cluster headaches, and tension headaches. In the postpartum period, symptoms of these headaches may be worse than usual.

Another type of headache people may have after giving birth is a post-dural puncture headache. People who receive an epidural may experience this complication after giving birth. According to experts, almost half of people who have an accidental puncture of the dura mater of their skin when they receive an epidural will have headaches. The dura mater is the “bag” containing cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), the brain, and the spinal cord.

Primary headaches and post-dural puncture headaches account for half of the causes of postpartum headaches.

Hormonal changes

Hormonal changes, such as a change in estrogen, serotonin, and oxytocin levels, after giving birth may cause headaches postpartum. These hormonal changes are also present in people who nurse. Other physical changes after having a baby include increased blood clotting to slow down the bleeding.

Some causes of postpartum headaches are life threatening and require immediate medical attention. These include:

  • mass within the skull
  • preeclampsia
  • meningitis
  • stroke
  • sinus venous thrombosis
  • reversible cerebral vasoconstriction syndrome

Increases in estrogen and progesterone levels can cause blood vessels to widen. Blood vessels that widen increase the rupture rate of abnormal blood vessels and bleeding within the skull.

Learn more about headaches after an epidural.

Doctors treat postpartum headaches in different ways depending on the causes. Worsening primary headaches during the postpartum phase may respond well to pain medication, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and counseling. Counseling provides guidance on the importance of sleep and proper nutrition after having a baby.

A person with post-dural puncture headache will feel better with bed rest, pain medications, hydration administered directly into a vein (intravenous), and caffeine supplements.

Blood patch procedure

A blood patch can help if these treatments do not work for post-dural puncture headache after 48 hours. A blood patch, also called an epidural blood patch, is an intervention to help people with post-dural puncture headaches.

The procedure involves taking a small volume of a person’s blood and injecting it into their epidural space. This helps to restore the usual pressure around the spine and brain to lessen the headache. Relief may occur instantly or a few days later.

With secondary postpartum headaches, a medical professional can typically treat the condition causing the headaches to provide relief. For example, a person with postpartum headaches due to preeclampsia will require magnesium supplementation and blood pressure medication. They may also require admission to an obstetrics ward for monitoring.

Anyone with a stroke after giving birth will require collaboration with a neurologist to treat their headaches. Antiplatelet therapy and anticoagulant medications are necessary in these situations. With excessive bleeding in the brain or skull, neurosurgeons will help relieve headaches.

Researchers suggest that postpartum headache affects about 40% of people after giving birth. Postpartum headaches are more common in people with a previous history of headaches. Other risk factors for postpartum headaches include:

  • older age
  • increased number of times the person has given birth
  • a shorter second stage of labor

People with primary headaches and post-dural puncture headaches have a great success rate in resolving their headaches. Neither of these conditions are life threatening.

Untreated postpartum headaches or people who delay consulting with a doctor may experience:

  • delayed return to function
  • economic difficulties
  • emotional instability

A medical professional will consider any quality of life issues in the postpartum phase or fourth trimester before treating the headaches.

Other conditions causing headaches have a more concerning prognosis. Preeclampsia has a mortality rate of 6.4 per 10,000 people. African American people who give birth have a greater risk compared with the general population for developing preeclampsia, progressing to eclampsia, and severe disease or death from high blood pressure.

Meningitis after giving birth has a mortality rate of 20%. This high rate is usually because of a delay in consulting a doctor. Stroke also has a significant mortality rate of 5%. The rate of dying from stroke is higher for hemorrhage compared with ischemic strokes.

Avoiding delayed consultations and quickly providing treatment can dramatically improve mortality rates, a return to function, and improve quality of life.

Changes during the postpartum phase can be uncontrollable, as hormonal or physiological changes after childbirth may cause headaches. Preventing complications from severe postpartum headaches requires contacting a doctor without delay.

Being aware of social causes for postpartum headaches can help prevent people from consulting their doctor for headaches or being admitted to the hospital. Social causes for headaches may require sleep training and education on proper nutrition.

Postpartum headaches are a challenge for people who have just given birth. Social causes, such as lifestyle changes a new baby brings, can cause headaches.

People may sometimes develop severe headaches after giving birth that require immediate medical attention. Consulting a doctor without delay can help resolve headaches and prevent complications.