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Headache During Pregnancy: Types, Causes, Treatment And Home Remedies

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Headaches might occur in any trimester for different reasons. They may get worse and frequent with time, too. While some types of headaches occur due to hormonal changes, others could result from health issues of pregnancy. Whatever could be the reason, discussing with your doctor could only help in proper treatment and management.

This MomJunction post discusses all about headaches during pregnancy, and ways that may help to deal with them.

Are Headaches Common During Pregnancy?

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

Types Of Headaches

Here are the various types of headaches that you might experience during pregnancy, along with their causes and symptoms.

Type of headachesCauseCharacteristics
1. Migraines (2)Hormonal 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

Numbness, visual disturbances, mood changes, fatigue, diarrhea, increased urination, speech disturbance, and weakness (in people having a migraine with aura) (3)

2. 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

3. Cluster headachesA malfunction of the 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. Sinus headaches (7)Nasal congestion or any other respiratory infectionNot very common during pregnancy

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

While the above mentioned are primary headaches, they may also arise as secondary headaches, which might happen due to pregnancy conditions or complications.

Next, we present the general symptoms and causes of headaches during pregnancy.

Symptoms Of Headaches During Pregnancy

Any headache during pregnancy (primary or secondary) could be accompanied by the following symptoms (8).

  • 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
  • A decrease in the blood platelet levels, which is also termed as Thrombocytopenia
  • Liver dysfunctions
  • Sensitivity to light

Causes Of Headaches During Pregnancy

Hormonal changes and an increase in the blood volume trigger frequent headaches in early pregnancy (9).

Causes of primary headaches (9)

  1. If you have had headaches or migraines before pregnancy, then you are more likely to experience it during early pregnancy.
  1. Pregnancy symptoms such as 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 headache (2). If you suddenly stop consuming caffeine, then that can also lead to headache as a withdrawal symptom (3).
  1. Sinus congestion may 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 might lead to a tension headache and can make the condition worse.
  1. Due to dehydration you may feel the pain around the nape of your neck, i.e., at the base of your skull, which results in a headache.

Causes of secondary headaches (10)

Headaches in pregnancy are most commonly homeostatic disturbances and hypertensive disorders of pregnancy, vascular problems, space-occupying lesions, and infections. A few examples are:

  • Preeclampsia (high blood pressure)
  • Stroke (hemorrhagic or ischaemic)
  • Benign (idiopathic) intracranial hypertension (BIH)
  • Cerebral venous thrombosis
  • Pituitary apoplexy meningitis/encephalitis
  • Arterial dissection
  • Choriocarcinoma
  • Pituitary tumor
  • Posterior reversible encephalopathy syndrome
  • Reversible cerebral vasoconstriction syndrome
  • Idiopathic intracranial hypertension or benign intracranial hypertension (BIH)

[ Read: Pregnancy Hormones ]

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 might consider.

1. Acupuncture and acupressure

Most acupuncture practitioners claim that certain pressure points could relieve headaches (11). But only a few studies assess the effectiveness of acupressure or acupuncture. Also, most of the studies were done on small sample size and lack adequate control.

i. Forehead Region

The points on the forehead are full of energy, and headache could be reduced by stimulating these points.

  • Third eye point:  Press the bridge of the nose between the two eyebrows for relief from a headache and eye strain.
  • 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 might help 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 (12).

3. Biofeedback

The biofeedback technique makes use of instruments that could precisely measure the physiological activities happening in your body (13). Electrodes are placed on the patient’s forehead or neck region to measure 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 could help you understand the cause of the pain. This may help you to manage the headaches during pregnancy.

4. Homeopathy

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

5. Osteopathy and chiropractic

Osteopathy might work if you have a headache due to shoulder or neck pain (16). It may help realign your bones, joints, and muscles by specifically working on the tension points in your body.

Another way of treating a headache is by using chiropractic therapy, which uses spinal manipulation to treat 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).

6. Reflexology

For a minor headache, a reflexology technique might work. It may help 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.

Medications For Headaches During Pregnancy

Consult your doctor about the medications for a headache during pregnancy. If you have persistent migraine pain, then you might refer to a neurologist or a maternal-fetal medicine specialist (MFM).

  • Your doctor may recommend regular pain medication such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) for headaches. But some studies suggest its adverse effects on the baby (19).
  • The first-line drug for migraines during pregnancy is preferably 1,000mg of paracetamol (acetaminophen). Aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) and ibuprofen could be taken in low doses periodically, but avoid them in the last trimester  (20).
  • For tension headaches, over-the-counter analgesics, such as codeine, and paracetamol are recommended. But non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agents (NSAIDs) and salicylates are not advisable (21).
  • For cluster headaches, the first-line treatment includes oxygen therapy, wherein the patient is subjected to a high flow of oxygen. A considerable reduction in the pain may be observed after 30 minutes of taking this therapy (21).
  • Consult your doctor before taking any medicine during pregnancy.

Home Remedies For Headache During Pregnancy

1. Steam inhalation:

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

2. Get a massage:

A good massage on your shoulders, back, and neck, might help relieve a migraine. Ensure that you get the massage done by a professional masseuse, who has experience in massaging pregnant women. Also, you may get a massage done for your head using medicated oils that relieve pain. Such a massage could help reduce the tension headaches to an extent. A study found that with six weekly massages, one can find improvement in the frequency of migraines  (22).

[ Read: Benefits Of Perineal Massage ]

3. Take a shower or bath:

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

4. 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.

5. Herbal remedies:

You may try herbal remedies at home. Most of them have not been studied or approved for usage, but some people still believe in using them.

  • 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.
  • Roast some caraway seeds and wrap them in a muslin cloth. Sniff its vapors to get instant relief from headaches (23).
  • 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.
  • Mix two teaspoons of apple cider vinegar and two teaspoons of honey to a glass of water and drink.
  • The antioxidants in ginger may help alleviate headaches (18). Brew a cup of tea with ginger and drink it whenever you get the pain.
  • 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 the case of migraines, a cold compress works better than a 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.
  • If you are suffering from a sinus headache while pregnant, then you may use peppermint oil to get relief from it. This essential oil acts as a natural vasodilator and might improve blood circulation (24).
  • Lavender oil might fight headaches and thus offers better sleep during pregnancy (25).
  • If you have headaches during the first trimester, try lemon or wild orange essential oils that may 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 the pain is severe, you might want to take a painkiller for immediate relief.

[ 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 may help you mitigate the problem.

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 could trigger a headache during pregnancy (25). 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 (26).
  1. Keep a food diary. Some foods, such as processed meats, chocolate, ice cream, and cheese might trigger headaches. Keep track of the foods that you eat as it may 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 strong lighting and noisy environments. Stay away from fluorescent lighting and noisy workplaces as they might 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 could also help prevent headaches during pregnancy.

[ Read: Stress During Pregnancy ]

Frequently Asked Questions

1. How common are migraines during pregnancy?

Migraines are likely to be common in women than in men due to female sex hormones (26) and occur with greater frequency during pregnancy. About one in five women experiences a migraine in her life (27) as against one in 16 men.

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

Usually, headaches wane toward the later stage of pregnancy. However, headache during the latter part of pregnancy with or without increased blood pressure may indicate preeclampsia. So consult your doctor.

2. How is headache associated with preeclampsia?

If you get frequent and severe headaches during thesecond or third trimester, it could indicate preeclampsia, or PIH (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 severe
  • associated with a vision change, nausea vomiting, heartburn, swelling
  • you have light sensitivity (28)

3. When can I expect my headaches to end while pregnant?

Headaches during pregnancy may subside or end depending on their cause. If they are pregnancy related due to increasing hormones, stress, congestion, or fatigue, then you may notice quicker relief.

4. Do headaches in pregnancy tell something about the baby’s gender?

It is just an old wives’ tale that goes with the saying women carrying boys get more headaches than women carrying girls. However, no scientific study supports this claim.

5. Is headache a sign of pregnancy?

Headache may not be considered a sign of pregnancy. It is usually a sign of other health problems during pregnancy.

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

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.

References:

1. Natasha Ng et al.; Headache in Pregnancy: An Overview of Differential Diagnoses; Journal of Pregnancy and Child Health (2015)
2. More than “just a headache” Way more than headache but what is it; The Migraine Trust
3. Migraine Headaches During Pregnancy; The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia
4. Headaches: In Depth; National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (2016)
5. Cluster headaches; NHS (2017)
6. Jacqueline Weaver-agostoni; Cluster Headache; American Academy of Family Physicians (2013)
7. Headaches in Early Pregnancy; Stanford Children’s Health
8. Negro et al.; Headache and pregnancy: a systematic review; J Headache Pain (2017)
9. Headaches in Early Pregnancy; University of Rochester Medical Center
10. Archana Dixit et al.; Headache in Pregnancy: A Nuisance or a New Sense; Obstet Gynecol Int. (2012)
11. Jimin Park et al.; The safety of acupuncture during pregnancy: a systematic review; Acupunct Med. (2014)
12. Nutritionist advises caution, care when using essential oils; Kansas State University (2017)
13. Dana L Frank et al.; Biofeedback in medicine: who, when, why and how? Ment Health Fam Med. (2010)
14. Biofeedback Training Techniques; National Headache Foundation
15. Homeopathy for headaches; National Center for Homeopathy
16. Francesco Cerritelli et al.; Osteopathy for primary headache patients: a systematic review; J Pain Res. (2017)
17. Chiropractic Medicine; The University of New Hampshire Health & Wellness
18. Launsø L et al.; An exploratory study of reflexological treatment for headache; Altern Ther Health Med. (1999)
19. Eivind Ystrom et al.; Prenatal Exposure to Acetaminophen and Risk of ADHD; Pediatrics. (2017)
20. Pfaffenrath V and Rehm M; Migraine in pregnancy: what are the safest treatment options? Drug Saf. (1998)
21. Jessica C. Schoen et al.; Headache in Pregnancy: An Approach to Emergency Department Evaluation and Management; West J Emerg Med. (2015)
22. Lawler SP and Cameron LD; A randomized, controlled trial of massage therapy as a treatment for migraine; Ann Behav Med. (2006)
23. K. Johri; Cuminum cyminum and Carum carvi: An update; Pharmacogn Rev. (2011)
24. Göbel H et al.; Essential plant oils and headache mechanisms; Phytomedicine. (1995)
25. Peir Hossein Koulivand et al.; Lavender and the Nervous System; Evid Based Complement Alternat Med (2013)
26. Elisabeth Volden Kvisvik et al.; Headache and migraine during pregnancy and puerperium: the MIGRA-study ; J Headache Pain. (2011)
27. Communications & Faqs; Migraine Awareness Group: A National Understanding for Migraineurs
28. Signs & Symptoms; Preeclampsia Foundation (2019)

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