Headache During Pregnancy - Causes, Symptoms & Treatments

Headache During Pregnancy

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A headache is one of the most common problems that affect pregnant women. Headaches typically occur due to hormonal changes taking place in your body while you are expecting. And for some women, the symptoms can be rather severe. But, the good news is that during the last six months of pregnancy, the headaches will recede, and you will experience an improvement. You will also be glad to know that there are many ways to treat headaches during pregnancy, so do not get too stressed over them! Read on and learn more about headaches during pregnancy.

Causes Of Headaches During Pregnancy:

Pregnancy can be a chaotic time for your hormones, which is the main reason for headache (1). A tension headache, the most common pregnancy-related headache (2), feels like a dull, steady ache at the back of your neck or both sides of your head. At times, you can even experience a squeezing pain. If you experience tension headaches pre-pregnancy, it can exacerbate during pregnancy. Other causes include:

1. Changes In Hormones:

Experts do not know exactly why headaches are common during pregnancy. Changes in the levels of hormones in your body during pregnancy cause debilitating headaches (3). Progesterone is a hormone that helps relax the womb or uterus as well as dilates blood vessels, including those in the neck and head. Therefore, blood flow through these vessels increases and causes the headaches. There is also an increase in blood volume and circulation in your body during the first trimester, which may be another cause of headaches.

[ Read: Home Remedies for Headache During Pregnancy ]

2. Blood Pressure Changes:

Another cause of tension headaches during pregnancy are changes in blood pressure. As mentioned earlier, if you have always been susceptible to this type of a headache or migraines, you may experience them more frequently during the early stages of your pregnancy. However, there are some women who find their headaches occur less frequently and are less severe when they are pregnant (4).

[ Read: Migrane During Pregnancy ]

3. Other Causes:

Apart from hormonal and blood pressure changes, there are many more causes that contribute to headaches in pregnant women. A few of them are:

  • Dehydration
  • Fatigue
  • Stress
  • Low blood sugar levels
  • Eye strain
  • Hunger
  • Lack of fresh air
  • Lack of sleep
  • Lack of physical exercise
  • Depression

You may be surprised to know that if you just quit smoking or are trying to reduce your intake of caffeine, one of the withdrawal symptoms may be headaches (5).

Headaches that affect the area behind the cheekbones may be due to sinus congestion. During pregnancy, your eyesight may also be affected because there are pressure changes around your eyes (6). Eyestrain can result in pain in or around your eyes or around your head.

It is not common for women to experience headaches during the later stages of pregnancy. However, if you do, it may be an indication of problems that are more serious such as preeclampsia or high blood pressure. It is important to talk to your doctor if you suffer from headaches during your third trimester, especially if they affect the frontal part of your head or come with nausea or flashing lights.

[ Read: Pregnancy Hormones ]

Treatment For Headaches During Pregnancy:

Here is a look at some of the most effective treatments for tension headaches and migraines during pregnancy:

1. Use A Compress:

If you suffer from a tension headache while pregnant, you can get relief by applying a cool or warm compress to the base of your skull (7), the sides of your head, forehead or eyes. For migraines, it is best to use a cold compress as they are most effective in providing relief.

2. Eat Regularly And Stay Hydrated:

As mentioned earlier, one of the most common triggers of a headache during pregnancy is low blood sugar (8). To prevent it, you should eat smaller meals more frequently. It is important not to keep your stomach empty. However, make sure you avoid candy and other straight sugar products as this lead to a spike and then crash in your blood sugar levels. Also, you should drink plenty of water to prevent dehydration. If you vomit due to a migraine, make sure you sip water slowly.

[ Read: Massage Chairs During Pregnancy ]

3. Remain Active:

To prevent tension headaches and migraine headaches during pregnancy, it is important to make sure you get plenty of exercises. There is some evidence that shows the severity and frequency of migraine headaches can be reduced with regular exercise (9). You also can lower stress, which is one of the common causes of tension headaches, with physical activity. Exercises that aid good posture may also help with headaches that occur during the third trimester.

4. Avoid Fatigue And Relax:

One of the best ways to get relief from headaches during pregnancy is to take a nap. It helps prevent them as your body gets the rest it needs during this time. If you have a migraine, take a nap in a dark and quiet room. Reducing stress is also important when you have headaches. One of the best ways to alleviate stress is to master relaxation techniques. So, look at yoga, meditation, and deep breathing to reduce stress.

[ Read: Acupuncture During Pregnancy ]

5. Reflexology:

Reflexology can treat minor headaches in pregnancy (10). It offers relief, but the key is getting the treatment from a registered therapist. Reflexology can play a huge role in reducing the pain that comes with headaches and migraines. It can also affect the frequency of a headache is a positive manner.

6. Try Biofeedback:

Many experts recommend biofeedback, which is a mind-body technique that helps in controlling certain bodily functions, such as blood pressure, heart rate and muscle tension (11), which reduces the headache pain. If you want to enjoy the benefits of biofeedback during pregnancy, ask your OB/GYN for a referral to a registered therapist.

7. Steam Inhalation:

If you suffer from a sinus headache, you can relieve the congestion through steam inhalation (12). You can also add moisture to the air by using a humidifier. It is important to remember mucus needs to keep flowing. So, drink plenty of fluids throughout the day. Visit your doctor to check if your headaches are caused by a sinus infection. If yes, get the doctor to prescribe a nasal decongestant that is safe to use during pregnancy.

8. Get A Massage:

You can release the tension in the muscles of your back, shoulders, and neck with a full-body massage. Get a massage from a trained prenatal massage therapist if you can afford it (13). If you cannot, you can ask your partner or friend to rub your head and back. You can also visit a salon to get a professional shampoo that is known to relieve headaches. There are many women who claim getting a massage helped them significantly in relieving tension headaches during pregnancy.

[ Read: Herbal Teas During Pregnancy ]

9. Acupuncture:

Although it is not known whether it is effective in treating headaches, acupuncture is a treatment that is considered safe during pregnancy (14). There are cases where pregnant women have benefitted from acupuncture when suffering from tension headaches. If you think it is worth a try, you can ask your health care provider to give you names of registered and experienced acupuncturists.

10. Take A Shower Or Bath:

A cold shower can provide quick, although temporary, relief from migraines. If you cannot take a shower, splashing cold water on your face can also help. For tension headaches, you can try a warm bath or shower. A warm bath with Epsom salts for 15 minutes will help you relax and alleviate the pain that comes with headaches.

11. Choose The Right Bra Size:

Did you know wearing an incorrect bra size can cause headaches? As strange as it may seem, it is true. During pregnancy, the ligaments that support your breasts stretch to support the weight of your growing breasts (15). This puts considerable pressure on your neck and back; that causes headaches.

12. Aromatherapy:

Needless to say, a nagging headache can dampen your spirits. Many women resort to using an ice pack on the forehead that does wonders! We also suggest the use of essential oils if you are suffering from acute pain. You can either pour a few drops of the oil on a napkin and take a whiff of it or rub some oil gently around your temple and forehead.

13. Refreshing Herbal Tea:

Brew a cup of tea using 1tsp each of lavender, lemon balm, and chamomile. Add ½ tsp of fennel seeds to this blend. Add milk and honey if you find the concoction unpalatable. This herbal tea works like a charm on sinus and anxiety headaches.

14. Caraway Seeds:

Roast and tie up caraway seeds in a clean muslin cloth. Sniff at this bundle for instant relief from headaches (16).

15. Cinnamon And Honey:

This is a potent formula that can reduce the intensity of your headache. Add three teaspoons of powdered cinnamon to a cup of milk and boil. Once the milk cools, add a tablespoon of honey and drink it up. Drink the concoction twice a day if you have a bad headache.

16. Apples:

An apple a day keeps the doctor away. This wasn’t said without a rhyme or reason. Apples are loaded with vitamins and minerals that keep you healthy and ticking. If other remedies do not help your headache, it is time to give Apple a shot. You can cure a chronic headache by eating slices of apple sprinkled with salt for a week or two.

[ Read: Apples During Pregnancy ]

17. Ginger Concoction:

Ginger, like Apple, has been used since time immemorial to treat a myriad of health conditions. Throw in an inch of freshly cut ginger while brewing a cup of tea. Ginger is loaded with antioxidants help alleviate headaches (17).

  • For a warm compress, make a rice sock and heat it in the oven before placing it around your neck. Adding a few drops of essential oil will give you double the relief.
  • Peppermint oil is a natural vasodilator and thereby helps improve blood circulation (18). If you suffer from a sinus headache during pregnancy, you will get immense relief using this oil.
  • Lavender oil is yet another essential oil that combats vicious headaches and promotes better sleep (19).
  • Both wild orange and lemon essential oils are a boon if you suffer from headaches in your first trimester. These citrus oils promote blood flow and reduce water retention. Just rub a few drops on your temples when you come down with a headache.
  • A mix of apricot, peppermint, and lemon essential oils will banish a headache in no time at all. Massage this restorative tonic into your forehead and on your hairlines. You can also massage this protective blend around the base of your neck and skull.

How To Prevent Headaches During Pregnancy:

Although headaches are common during pregnancy, you can prevent them when you are pregnant. Here are two ways to do so:

  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet: Eat a healthy, balanced diet: While it can be difficult to think of eating when you suffer from morning sickness, it is important to make sure that you eat a healthy diet (20). As mentioned earlier, it is vital to prevent hunger when you are pregnant as it can cause headaches. Eat small meals throughout the day to prevent your stomach from getting empty. Keep snacks like almonds, dried apricots, yogurt, fruit and crackers if you are on the go or at work.
  • Get exercise: As mentioned, exercise helps treat and prevent tension and migraines during pregnancy. Physical activity helps in alleviating tension, stress, and depression, all of which can cause headaches when pregnant. Apart from that, breathing in fresh air can also prevent headaches. Hence, look to spend time outdoors and enjoy some healthy physical activity.

[ Read: Kegel Exercises During Pregnancy ]

  • Get plenty of rest: Make sure you have time to relax and get plenty of rest to prevent the onset of headaches during pregnancy. You should take time out for a nap every day. Also, give yourself time to relax every day – whether it is soaking in a warm bath, listening to soothing music, reading a book or meditating. Find out what helps you relax the most and do it as part of your daily routine.
  • You are in your second or third trimester and suffer from a headache for the first time or get a really bad one. A headache may or may not come with changes in vision, nausea or sharp pain in the upper abdominal area, swelling in your face or hands or sudden weight gain. You may have to get a urine test and also get your blood pressure checked immediately to rule out preeclampsia (21). If you have been having problems with rising or high blood pressure, you should call your doctor even if the headache is a mild one.
  • You have an explosive headache all of a sudden or violent pain that rouses you from your sleep. You should also call your health care provider if you have a headache that does not go away or is one that does not feel like any a headache that you have experienced in the past (22).
  • Your headache comes with a fever. It could be another problem which is why it is important to get the cause diagnosed as quickly as possible. You should also make sure you call your doctor as soon as possible if your headache is accompanied by a stiff neck.
  • The headache gets worse by the minute, and you experience other problems such as visual disturbances like blurry vision, drowsiness, slurred speech, numbness or a change in normal alertness.
  • You have nasal congestion along with pressure and pain underneath your eyes or other facial pain. You should also call your doctor if a headache is accompanied by dental pain. You may have an infection in your sinus that will require treatment with antibiotics (23).
  • You have a headache after hitting your head or falling. In fact, you should call your health care provider immediately if you have a headache after any head injury. It is crucial to make sure there is no internal damage due to the trauma.

When you are pregnant, it is important to make sure you eat from a variety of food groups – protein sources, fruits and vegetables, dairy products and bread and grains. Make sure these foods are included in your daily diet so that you get a good balance of all vital nutrients that your body requires, especially during this time. During pregnancy, your body requires an additional 300 calories every day (24).

Join pregnancy exercise classes or go for a walk or swim to get the exercise your body requires during this stage of your life (25). According to experts, even a 30-minute walk can do wonders for headaches while helping you get the exercise you need. Exercise also promotes restful sleep that is important for preventing headaches when you are pregnant.

Sleep helps prevent pregnancy headaches and migraines. You should make sure you get an early night regularly to get the right amount of sleep (26). Six to eight hours of rest is prudent when you want to avoid painful migraine headaches. Get a good night’s sleep to keep fatigue, eye strain, stress and other factors that contribute to headaches at bay.

[ Read: Sinus During Pregnancy ]

When To Consult Your Health Care Provider:

It is prudent that you know when to call your doctor if you suffer from headaches during pregnancy. As mentioned earlier, although it is a common problem in pregnant women, headaches can indicate a more serious health condition. You should call your health care provider immediately if:

  • Even if you have had headaches and migraines before, it is important to talk to your health care provider, to ensure that the right treatment is rendered to you. If you suffer from migraines, you will be unable to take many medications that you used before your pregnancy. Never take any medication, including herbal ones, without consulting your doctor first.
  • If you experience abnormal strain on your eyes or looking at a computer screen or reading brings on headaches; you may have vision problems. Get your vision checked by an eye specialist.

Preeclampsia During Pregnancy:

If you experience severe headaches during pregnancy especially in the second or third trimester, it is likely that you are afflicted with preeclampsia. Also known as toxemia, preeclampsia occurs when a woman suffers from high blood pressure during pregnancy (29). This condition affects approximately 5 to 10% of pregnancies (30). Headaches caused by this condition tend to be throbbing and persistent.

Pregnant women with preeclampsia may also have other symptoms, including seeing spots or blurry vision, pain in the upper abdomen, sudden weight gain and swelling of the face and hands, also known as edema (31). If you experience any of these symptoms or have a headache that is not similar to others you have had, it is important to visit your health care provider immediately.

Preeclampsia can occur during pregnancy as well as postpartum (32). This condition has an effect on both the mother and baby. Preeclampsia occurs when the blood vessels in the placenta have an abnormal interaction. Apart from those mentioned above, some of the symptoms and signs of pregnancy headache includes:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Severe headaches
  • Proteinuria, or excess protein in the urine, or other signs of kidney problems
  • Decrease in urine output
  • Shortness of breath that occurs due to fluid in the lungs
  • Thrombocytopenia, or decrease in the platelet levels in blood
  • Impaired liver function
  • Sensitivity to light and other changes in vision

[ Read: Eclampsia During Pregnancy ]

Other Types Of Headaches During Pregnancy:

  • Different women go through different types of headaches during their pregnancy. As stated earlier, those who are susceptible to headaches will suffer from severe ones during their pregnancy (33). Apart from tension headaches and migraines, pregnant women can also have other types of headaches, including sinus headaches, cluster headaches or those due to uncommon health problems. If you are pregnant and unsure about a headache you have, it is important to visit your prenatal care provider so that you can get an accurate diagnosis and immediate treatment.
  • As you can see, there is a lot more to headaches during pregnancy than one thinks. What you think is a headache caused by fatigue, stress or hunger may be something more serious. This is why it is important to take your headache seriously. Keeping a close check on the symptoms you experience is also crucial, as they could be an indication of a serious condition that requires quick diagnosis and treatment.

The treatments mentioned herein can help provide relief from headaches during pregnancy. It is important to remember not to start any medication without consulting your health care provider first. Additionally, you should never resort to herbal or home remedies without the consent of a health care professional. You need to consult a professional for alternative therapy like aromatherapy, as there are certain essential oils that have to be used with caution or completely avoided during pregnancy.

The most important thing to remember is you should consult your doctor immediately if you are worried about a headache during your pregnancy. This can help prevent many more serious problems that could lead to complications for you and your baby.

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