Headache During Pregnancy: Causes, Treatment And Preventive Measures

Headache During Pregnancy

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Headache + pregnancy is a nightmare. A headache itself is annoying but when it comes during your pregnancy, it could be too much to handle. But that’s the reality because the headaches are common during the first trimester.

Generally, you pop a medicine to get rid of a headache, but during pregnancy, you don’t have the freedom to take over-the-counter medicines. So, how would you deal with a headache during pregnancy?

Momjunction will tell you why headaches are common during pregnancy, why they are caused and how you can deal with or avoid them.

Are Headaches Common During Pregnancy?

Headaches are common during pregnancy due to the hormonal changes happening inside your body (1). If you are getting frequent headaches during the first trimester, they might subside in the next trimester or as soon as the pregnancy hormones are stabilized.

Headaches are triggered not only by hormonal activity but also by various other reasons.

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Causes Of Headaches During Pregnancy:

Hormonal changes and increase in the blood volume trigger frequent headaches in early pregnancy. The other causes are:

  1. Any fluctuation in your blood pressure can lead to headaches.
  1. If you have had headaches or migraines before pregnancy, then you are more likely to experience it during early pregnancy.
  1. Pregnancy symptoms like fatigue, hunger, lack of exercise, dehydration, etc., can also lead to headaches in pregnancy.
  1. One of the side effects of excessive caffeine intake is a headache (2). If you suddenly stop consuming caffeine, then that too can lead to a headache as a withdrawal symptom (3).
  1. Sinus congestion can cause pain behind your cheekbones area, triggering a headache. Also, an eye-strain caused due to the pressure changes around the eyes during pregnancy can affect eyesight and lead to a headache.
  1. Stress can lead to a tension headache and can make the condition worse.
  1. You may feel the pain around the nape of your neck, i.e., at the base of your skull, due to dehydration, which results in a headache.

[ Read: Pregnancy Hormones ]

A headache during pregnancy could accompany with or be a symptom of:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Proteinuria (excess protein in the urine) or any other kidney related problems
  • Decreased urine output
  • Difficulty in breathing due to fluid in the lungs
  • Decrease in the blood platelet levels, which is also termed as Thrombocytopenia
  • Liver dysfunctions
  • Sensitivity to light

The causes for headaches are many, and so are its types.

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What Are The Different Types Of Headaches?

Here are the various headaches that you might have during pregnancy:

Type of headacheCauseCharacteristics
1. Tension headachesTightening of muscles in the neck, scalp, shoulders, and jaw; or stress, depression and anxiety

Lack of sleep, work-related stress, missed meals, and alcohol consumption are some other reasons (4)

Continuous and squeezing pain either at the back of the neck or on both sides of the head

Tight pain

2. Sinus headachesNasal congestion or any other respiratory infectionNot very common during pregnancy

The pain is felt around the eyes, in the forehead, and cheeks

3. Cluster headaches:A malfunction of hypothalamus causes the enlargement of carotid arteries that put pressure on the trigeminal nerves causing the pain (5)Rare during pregnancy (6)

Sudden and severe pain around one eye or the temple, teary eyes, or a stuffy nose

Typically occurs during the same time every day and may last from a few hours to weeks or months

4. MigrainesHormonal changes, stress, nausea, lack of sleep, and dehydrationThe throbbing pain is felt on one side of the head

Sensitivity to light and noise, nausea, and vomiting

Aggravates with physical activities and may last from 4 to 72 hours (7)

Numbness, visual disturbances, speech disturbance, and weakness (in people having a migraine with aura)

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[ Read: Nausea And Vomiting During Pregnancy ]

How Common Are Migraines During Pregnancy?

Migraines are more common in women than in men due to female sex hormones (8) and occur with greater frequency during pregnancy. About one in five women experiences a migraine in her life (9) as against one in 16 men.

Some women experience migraine for the first time during pregnancy around the first trimester. However, in some cases, the migraine may actually diminish during pregnancy.

Usually, headaches wane toward the later stage of pregnancy. However, if you still get them frequently, it may indicate preeclampsia.

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How Is Headache Associated With Preeclampsia?

If you get frequent and severe headaches during thesecond or third trimester, it could indicate preeclampsia, pregnancy-induced high blood pressure. Preeclampsia affects 5 to 10% of pregnancies. The headache that you may experience during this condition can be continuous and palpitating.

The headaches due to preeclampsia could be dull or severe, and throbbing, and similar to those of a migraine.

See a doctor immediately if:

  • the headache is very painful
  • comes along with a vision change
  • you have light sensitivity (10)

If the headaches are mild, the best medicine is to sleep and take rest. However, if the headache is hampering your work, you might go for some alternative therapies or take a painkiller. But is taking painkillers alright? We’ll come to it after discussing various alternative therapies.

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[ Read: Postpartum Preeclampsia ]

Non-pharmacological Treatments For Headaches During Pregnancy

Make sure that you get the therapies done by an experienced and certified therapist. Here is the list of treatments you can go for:

1. Acupuncture and acupressure

Acupuncture and acupressure stimulate the points in your body to help ease up headaches. Moreover, acupuncture is good for relieving migraines and tension headaches (11).

Here are some acupressure points to get relief from headaches (12):

(image reference: https://acupressurepoints.org/treat-migraine-headaches/; all images need to be of women)

i. Forehead region

The points on forehead and face are full of energy, and migraine can be reduced by stimulating these points.

Third eye point: Press the bridge of the nose between the two eyebrows for relief from a headache, eye strain, and ulcer pains.

Drilling bamboo or bright light is located below the third eye point at the inner corner of the eyes; stimulating this point for at least one minute gives relief from sinus headaches.

ii.Temple region

This region has points around the upper corner of the ear. Stimulate the below-given points in order of their sequence, to get relief from migraines:

  • Hairline curve
  • Valley lead
  • Celestial hub
  • Floating white
  • Head portal yin

iii. Face region

The points are on either side of the nostril, below the cheekbones. Stimulating these points helps in opening sinuses and reducing toothaches, eye fatigue, migraines, and tension headaches.

iv. Neck region

The pressure points in your neck region provide relief from tension headaches and migraines. Stimulating the midpoint between your ears behind the head provides relief from pain in eyes, ears, and throat, unblocks nasal congestion, and mitigates a headache and migraine.

v. Hand region

Press the soft spot between your thumb and the index finger to get relief from frontal headaches, toothache and back pain.

vi. Foot region

Use these two acupressure points in the foot to treat headaches.

Bigger rushing: Apply pressure on the top of your foot on the valley between the big and second toe, to get relief from headaches, foot cramps, eye tiredness, and arthritis.

Above tears: Located an inch above the webbing (soft skin) of your fourth and fifth toes, this pressure point offers relief from headaches, shoulder tension, sciatica, hip pain, arthritic pains, and water retention.

2. Aromatherapy

Put a few drops of lavender and peppermint oil on a tissue or a handkerchief and sniff it as often as you feel the ache. You can also rub the oil on your temple or both sides of your forehead.

3. Bach flower remedies

Feeling stressed out is quite normal during pregnancy and it can trigger a headache.

To treat exhaustion Bach flower remedy is effective and helps relieve a headache.

4. Biofeedback

The biofeedback technique makes use of instruments that can precisely measure the physiological activities happening in your body (13). Electrodes are placed on the patient’s forehead or neck region to measure the muscle tension. As tension increases, the EMG monitor will increase its noise (14).

It measures the brainwaves, evaluates your behavior at that particular moment and gives back the information that helps you understand the cause of the pain. This helps you to manage the headaches during pregnancy.

5. Homeopathy

Homeopathic treatments can be opted for treating moderate headaches (15). If you want to try them, consult a qualified, registered homeopath.

6. Osteopathy and chiropractic

Osteopathy works well if you have a headache due to shoulder or neck pain (16). It helps realign your bones, joints, and muscles by specifically working on the tension points in your body.
Another way of treating a headache is using chiropractic therapy, which uses spinal manipulation to treat severe headaches. This involves realigning the cervical vertebrae. As many nerves pass through the upper cervical region, any trauma to this area results in a migraine, tension and cluster headaches (17).

7. Reflexology

For a minor headache, reflexology technique works well. It helps in reducing the recurrence of headaches (18). It aims at stimulating the points on your feet, hands, or ears with a gentle massage. Make sure to get the therapy done by a registered therapist.

8. Steam inhalation:

Inhaling steam from a pan of hot water helps relieve congestion by clearing the sinus and gives you relief from a headache. You can also check with your doctor for a nasal decongestant, which is safe to use during pregnancy. Flowing mucus will inhibit congestion, thereby minimizing any sinus issues during pregnancy.

9. Get a massage:

A good massage on your shoulders, back and neck is a great way to help relieve a migraine. Ensure that you get the massage done by a professional masseuse, who has experience in massaging pregnant women. Also, you can get a massage done for your head using medicated oils that relieve pain. Such massage helps reduce the tension headaches to an extent. A study found that with six weekly massages, one can find great improvement in the frequency of migraines (19).

[ Read: Benefits Of Perineal Massage ]

10. Take a shower or bath:

Taking a cold shower can provide temporary and quick relief from headaches. Even splashing cold water on the face can relieve tension headaches. Moreover, a warm shower with Epsom salt for 15 minutes can help alleviate a headache.

11. Choose the right bra size:

During pregnancy, the breast ligaments stretch in order to support your growing breasts, which put substantial pressure on your back and neck causing headaches.

12. Herbal remedies

[ Read: Home Remedies To Cure Headache During Pregnancy ]

You can go for herbal remedies at home. Here are a few you can try:

i. Prepare herbal tea with one teaspoon each of lemon balm, lavender, and chamomile. Add to it about half a teaspoon of fennel seeds and honey, and drink it. It works well for anxiety and sinus headaches.

ii. Roast some caraway seeds and wrap them in a muslin cloth. Sniff its vapors to get instant relief from headaches (20).

iii. Add around three teaspoons of cinnamon powder to a cup of milk and boil it. Let the milk cool, then add honey to taste and drink it. Take this concoction twice a day if your head is aching badly.

iv. Mix two teaspoons of apple cider vinegar and two teaspoons of honey to a glass of water and drink.

v. The antioxidants in ginger help alleviate headaches (21). Brew a cup of tea with ginger and drink it whenever you get the pain.

vi. Use a cold or warm compress to get relief from tension headaches. Keep the compress at the base of the skull and on the sides of your forehead or eyes. In case of migraines, a cold compress is more effective than warm compress.

You can make a warm compress at home. Make a rice sock and heat it in the oven. Place the hot sock around your neck. Adding a few drops of any essential oil to the sock will give added relief.

vii. If you are suffering from a sinus headache while pregnant, then use peppermint oil to get relief from it. This essential oil acts as a natural vasodilator and improves blood circulation (22).

viii. Lavender oil fights headaches and offers better sleep during pregnancy (23).

ix. If you have headaches during the first trimester, try lemon or wild orange essential oils that help reduce the pain. These essential oils promote blood circulation and minimize water retention in the body. Apply a few drops of this oil on the temple when you get a headache.

x. Blend lemon, peppermint, and apricot essential oils and apply this mix on your hairlines or your forehead. You may also massage this oil around the base of your skull and neck.

If you are not able to overcome the pain with one of these natural remedies, then you will need to rely on pain medications. Let us have a look at those medications.

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[ Read: Is It Safe To Drink Caffeine During Pregnancy ]

Can You Take Pain Medication To Treat A Headache?

Acetaminophen(Tylenol) is safe to take for sinus headaches during pregnancy, provided it is taken as per the recommended dosage mentioned on the label (24).

A tension headache can be managed with the over-the-counter analgesics such as codein and paracetamol. However, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agents (NSAIDS) are not recommended during the third trimester (25).

The first-line drug for migraines during pregnancy can be 1,000mg of paracetamol (acetaminophen). Aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) and ibuprofen could be taken in low doses periodically, but avoid them in the last trimester (26).

For acute cluster headache during pregnancy, the first line treatment includes oxygen therapy, wherein the patient is subjected to a high flow of oxygen. A considerable reduction in the pain can be observed after 30 minutes of taking this therapy (27).

Always ask your doctor about the medications you can take for a headache during pregnancy. If you have a persisting migraine pain, you might be referred to a neurologist or a maternal-fetal medicine specialist (MFM) to help with the pains.

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[ Read: Medication To Avoid During Pregnancy ]

When To Consult Your Healthcare Provider?

You must consult a doctor, if:

  1. You experience a sudden and severe headache as soon as you wake up from your sleep.
  1. The headache is not like the ones you have experienced in the past.
  1. It is accompanied by a fever or stiff neck.
  1. You have other problems like blurry vision, drowsiness, numbness, slurred speech, inattentiveness.
  1. You have nasal congestion accompanied by pain and pressure under your eyes or anywhere on your facial contours.
  1. The headache comes along with dental pain, which points towards an infection in your sinus.
  1. You happened to fall or hit your head.
  1. You get headaches after reading or looking at a computer screen.
  1. You experience any visual changes, a sharp pain in your upper abdominal area, sudden weight gain, nausea, or swelling of your face or hand.

Timely action will help you mitigate the problem.

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How To Prevent Headaches During Pregnancy?

Headaches during the first trimester mostly occur due to hormonal changes, and you may not have much to do to prevent them. However, having a disciplined lifestyle could reduce the chances of headaches:

  1. Keep eating as low blood sugar level can trigger a headache during pregnancy (28). It results from either skipping meals. Nibble on healthy snacks like whole-grain crackers or a nutritious granola bar.
  1. Get enough rest. Sleep helps minimize the recurrence of headaches and migraines. Sleep early as a good night’s sleep helps to keep eye strain, fatigue, and stress at bay (29).
  1. Keep a food diary. Some foods such as processed meats, chocolate, ice cream, and cheese can trigger headaches. Keep track of the foods that you eat as it can help you figure out the headache patterns to exclude those foods from your diet.
  1. Cut down on caffeine. If you have a craving for coffee, then cut down the consumption gradually, during pregnancy. For example, if you usually have three or four cups of coffee a day, then bring it down to two initially and one cup subsequently.
  1. Get some air. Avoid going to hot places and stay away from strong smells. Breathe fresh air and keep the room windows open. Avoid wearing tight clothes, and go for loose fitting and breathable ones.
  1. Avoid lightings and noisy environment. Stay away from fluorescent lighting and noisy workplaces as they can trigger a headache.
  1. Have the right posture. Do not bend, slump or slouch while doing any work for long hours.
  1. Indulge in activities to get over stress. Attend prenatal yoga classes, meditate, or perform some breathing exercises. Going for a walk will also help prevent headaches during pregnancy.

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[ Read: Stress During Pregnancy ]

Headaches are benign and do not affect your baby in any way. Yes, they will trouble you and disturb your routine. But the above-mentioned treatments and preventive methods can certainly help provide relief from headaches during pregnancy. However, make sure to consult your doctor before starting any medications or herbal medicines.

Have any experience to share? Let us know in the comment box.

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