There are a number of side effects of being pregnant that often get ignored in pregnancy literature, but the fact is that women experience all sorts of aches and pains during their pregnancies, including headaches and migraines. While headaches are usually not a cause for concern, they can be bothersome and there are many questions surrounding them. Here is a guide to help women understand and manage headaches and migraines during pregnancy.
What Causes Headaches During Pregnancy?
Just like when a woman is not pregnant, there are a number of things that can cause headaches during pregnancy. The biggest culprits are those pesky pregnancy hormones. When coupled with the increased blood volume that women have during their pregnancy, it can add up to a throbbing head. Other common causes of headaches during pregnancy are:
- Low blood sugar
- Poor posture
- Lack of sleep
- Caffeine withdrawal
What Causes Migraines During Pregnancy?
Migraines are a very different type of headache than those that most people experience (see: Migraine Headaches). What most pregnant women experience is called tension headache, but migraines are vascular in nature, meaning that the headache is caused by the blood vessels in the brain dilating.
Migraines during pregnancy work in a similar fashion to a craps table; a woman can never really tell how the dice are going to fall. Many women report that there migraines improve or they experience fewer of them as their pregnancy progresses, while others say that they get worse or occur more frequently over time.
There are other signs and symptoms associated with migraines during pregnancy that are not associated with tension headaches, such as:
- Sensitivity to light
- Sensitivity to sound
- Nausea or vomiting
- Pain that radiates from one side of the head
- Vision changes
The concern with migraines during pregnancy is twofold. The first is that there is an increased risk of vascular problems during pregnancy due to the increased network of blood vessels and increased blood volume during pregnancy, so if a woman experiences her first migraine during her pregnancy, she needs to let her doctor know right away.
The second concern is with treatment. Many of the treatments typically used to treat migraines are not safe for use during pregnancy, so if a woman was on medication to prevent migraines before becoming pregnant (such as the medication Depakote) she needs to speak with her doctor immediately. These medications can cause serious problems during the development of the baby, including neural tube defects or a cleft palate or lip. The medications used to manage a migraine already in progress are not safe during pregnancy either.
What Can Be Done To Relieve The Pain?
This is the main question when it comes to headaches and migraines. And while the list of medications that can be taken during pregnancy is relatively short, there are a number of other things that can be done to help relieve the pain, though some might seem a little silly at first.
Acetaminophen is the only pain reliever that is safe to use during pregnancy. Any of the other over-the counter pain relievers can cause harm to the baby because they affect blood flow and clotting. However, there are several other things that can help while the acetaminophen catches up with the pain.
One of the most effective things that a pregnant woman can use, especially in the case of migraines is ice. An ice pack on the site where the pain radiates from can cause the blood vessels to constrict, and in the case of some types of migraines, it can also reduce swelling in the walls of the blood vessels. Ice works much faster than waiting for medication to circulate throughout the body, it offers no side effects at all to the baby, and it's affordable since most people have ice already in the freezer.
Other complementary treatments include:
- Heat (especially helpful for tension headaches or headaches caused by pregnancy rhinitis)
- Resting in a dark quiet room
- Aromatherapy (see: Aromatherapy For Labor And During Pregnancy)
The best way to treat a headache may be to prevent one from occurring. So be sure to practice good posture, get plenty of rest, eat a healthy diet and get some exercise.
Can They Become Serious?
Headaches and migraines during pregnancy are seldom ever serious and are a normal occurrence. However there are situations where a headache or migraine should be evaluated. If a woman experiences her first migraine during her pregnancy, that could be a problem. Also one of the symptoms of preeclampsia, a very serious condition that occurs during pregnancy is a severe headache. Preeclampsia can cause a host of problems for the baby and the mother, so if a woman experiences a severe headache, especially later in her pregnancy, she should get it checked out.
Headaches or migraines that are accompanied by blurred vision or a fever, or persist for more than several hours and occur frequently require immediate medical attention. A headache or migraine during pregnancy, typically, aren’t serious, but you should always consult your health care provider and describe the pain you’ve been dealing with as soon as possible.