Headaches During Pregnancy

Causes, treatment, and prevention

Headaches are a common discomfort of pregnancy. From hormone changes to the sudden end of drinking coffee to not sleeping well, there are plenty of reasons pregnancy can bring on a headache. Headaches may be a pain in the neck (well, more like a pain in the head) but they are usually not dangerous for moms and babies. Here’s what you need to know about the causes, treatments, and prevention of headaches during pregnancy.

Causes 

Women get headaches from time to time, so it isn’t surprising they pop up during pregnancy, too. The reason is not always known, but many things can lead to a headache while you’re pregnant such as:  

Treatment

Before becoming pregnant, your main method of treating a headache might have been to reach for the pain medication. But, now that you’re expecting, you may want to try to deal with the pain in other ways and use medicine as a last resort. Here are some alternative ways to cope with a headache during your pregnancy.

treating headaches during pregnancy
Illustration by Brianna Gilmartin, Verywell
  1. Rest in a dark room: Turn off the lights and lower the volume of the TV or turn it off and try to take a nap. 
  2. Use hot and cold towels: Alternate between heat and cold on your head where it aches. 
  3. Take a bath: If you are not experiencing pregnancy complications and your doctor says it’s safe to take a bath, you can relax in a warm tub. 
  4. Try natural health services: Alternative care such as massage, chiropractic care, or acupuncture may help to relieve headaches. Be sure to choose licensed professionals for all your natural health care needs and talk to your doctor especially if you have any issues with your pregnancy. 
  5. Make an appointment with your eye doctor: Pregnancy can affect your eyes by making them dry and changing your eyesight. Your eye doctor can offer options to help relieve headaches from eye issues.
  6. Ask for help: If you have other children, don’t be shy about calling a friend or family member to ask for help so you can get some rest. The people who care about you are often more than happy to help out.

    Medication

    If you can get through an occasional headache without using pain medication, that’s great. But sometimes, chronic headaches or severe migraines are just too much to handle. You don’t have to suffer in pain just because you’re having a baby.

    That doesn’t mean you should take the over-the-counter medication you usually would or the migraine medication in your medicine cabinet. Now that you’re pregnant, you have to be more careful about what you use to treat your pain. So, call your doctor. Your doctor will tell you which OTC pain medicine is safe or prescribe medication if you need it.

    • Tylenol (acetaminophen) is considered safe to take while you’re pregnant, but it should only be taken when needed.
    • Your doctor may recommend NSAIDs such as Motrin or Advil (ibuprofen) or aspirin in the second trimester.
    • For migraines, your doctor may give you prescription medications to treat migraine headaches, nausea, and pain.

    Caffeine Headaches

    Caffeine is a drug. It’s addictive, and your body can become dependent on it. If you love your coffee or soda and stop drinking it all of a sudden when you find out you're pregnant, you can go through caffeine withdrawal. Caffeine withdrawal can cause fatigue, irritability, shakiness, and, yes, a headache.

    So, if you get a headache right after you stop drinking coffee, it’s probably from caffeine withdrawal. It may take your body a few days to adjust to the absence of caffeine, so here are some tips to get you through.

    1. Cut down on the caffeine slowly: If possible, don’t give up caffeine cold turkey. It’s easier on your body if you cut back gradually. If you do get a headache, having a small amount of caffeine may help, and it is not shown to be harmful.
    2. Find other ways to boost your energy: Caffeinated beverages give you energy, so you may feel tired and lack energy when you switch to decaf coffee or caffeine-free soda, especially mid-day. If you feel sluggish, you can try to give yourself a natural boost by having a healthy snack, getting some fresh air, or going for a walk.
    3. Stay hydrated: Don’t skip your beverage break just because it's no longer a coffee break. You still need fluids, so drink plenty of water or other beverages that don’t contain caffeine.
    4. Go to bed early: To help keep your energy levels up during the day, try to get enough rest at night.
    What to Expect From Caffeine Withdrawal

    Sinus Headaches

    Allergies or a sinus infection can cause pain and pressure in your forehead, or around your eyes and the bridge of your nose. You may also have a stuffy or a runny nose and a fever.

    Call your doctor if you think you have a sinus headache. Your doctor may want to prescribe an antibiotic if you have a sinus infection.

    You can also treat a sinus headache by:

    • Trying to stay away from the things that may be causing your allergy
    • Using a saline nasal spray or neti pot to help loosen and clear the mucus
    • Using a humidifier or holding your head over a steaming bowl of water with a towel over your head and the bowl
    • Drinking plenty of fluids
    • Getting extra rest

    Not all over-the-counter sinus and allergy medications are safe to take while you’re pregnant. So, if you think you need an antihistamine or a pain reliever, you should talk to your doctor about which medicine is safe for you to use. 

    Tension Headaches

    You can get a tension headache from anxiety or stress. It may feel like a tightness around your head, and you may also feel it down the back of your head and in your neck. To ease a tension headache, you can:

    1. Place an ice pack or cold towel on the back of your neck to relieve tension.
    2. Take breaks to get up and walk around if you are sitting down at a computer or desk all day for work.
    3. Try pregnancy yoga, gentle neck stretching exercises, and breathing exercises to help to ease muscle tension in your neck and back.
    4. Take a warm bath or shower.
    5. Rest with your feet up.

    Migraine Headaches

    Migraines are more intense than typical headaches. The throbbing, pounding pain is often accompanied by other symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, dizziness, blurry vision, and sensitivity to light and sound. Some women who suffer from migraines find that they get better during pregnancy, but that’s not always the case.

    If you get migraine headaches, you can try to pinpoint and avoid the things that commonly trigger migraines including:

    • Certain foods or smells
    • Alcohol
    • Caffeine
    • Stress
    • Exhaustion
    • Bright lights

    You can also:

    • Rest in a quiet, dark place
    • Use relaxation techniques
    • Apply ice packs to your head
    • Try alternative treatments such as massage or acupuncture

    If your migraines are too severe and you need medication, talk to your doctor. 

    Headache Prevention

    Headaches are a part of life. Since they don’t always have an obvious cause and you can get one from things that you can’t control like a cold, there’s no way to prevent them completely. But, there are some things you can do to try to keep them away.

    1. Avoid triggers: If you can figure out what foods, plants, or smells are causing your headache, you can stay away from them.
    2. Stay hydrated: Not drinking enough water or losing too much of your body’s water on a hot day or through exercise can lead to a headache, so drink plenty of water to prevent dehydration.
    3. Don’t skip meals: Hunger and low blood sugar can cause a headache, so try to eat a well-balanced diet. Have three meals a day plus a few healthy snacks to keep your blood sugar levels steady. Carry healthy snacks full of protein and whole-grains with you, so you don’t have to go for long periods without eating.
    4. Try to get enough rest: Fight off fatigue by getting a good night's sleep and taking naps during the day, if possible.
    5. Use relaxation techniques: Meditation, listening to music, doing some mild exercise such as yoga, and other stress relieving coping mechanisms can help reduce anxiety and stress.
    6. Be aware of your stress: If you are under too much stress and need help dealing with it, talk to your doctor.
    1. Try to improve your posture: It's so easy to slouch, so try to sit up straight and walk with your shoulders back. Good posture helps to prevent muscle strain on your back and neck, especially as your baby and your belly grow.
    How to Prevent Headaches Using These Simple Strategies

    When to Call the Doctor

    Most of the time, a headache is just a headache, and it will go away once you eat something or get a little rest.

    A bad headache that does not go away in a few hours, gets worse, or keeps coming back could be a sign of a pregnancy complication, so you should call your doctor.

    You should also notify the doctor:

    • Before taking any medication or herbal supplement to treat your headache to be sure that it’s safe
    • If your natural treatments are not working
    • If you have a fever, pressure around your eyes, or a stuffy nose
    • If you get a headache and you have a history of high blood pressure
    • If you get a headache after you hit 20 weeks pregnant
    • If you have pain along with other symptoms such as nausea, blurry vision, abdominal pain, or swelling in the body
    • If you have head pain after falling and hitting your head

    A Word From Verywell

    Headaches can be painful and annoying. They're even worse when you’re pregnant, and you have to be careful about taking medication. But by understanding what can trigger a headache, you can try to prevent it. And if you do get one, you’ll be better prepared to deal with it.

    Thankfully, most headaches during pregnancy are just a pain and not dangerous for you or your baby. They typically go away on their own with some fluids, a bite to eat, and a little relaxation. However, don’t be afraid to call the doctor, especially if it’s lasting long, getting worse, or you have any other symptoms along with a headache.

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