Headaches during pregnancy

Headaches during pregnancy experienced by woman at work

At the best of times a headache is inconvenient – but when you’re growing another human inside of you, it’s really one of the last things you want. Unfortunately, headaches during pregnancy are fairly common – here’s what you need to know about the causes and treatments, as well as when to see your doctor.

What causes headaches during pregnancy | Migraines during pregnancy | Taking painkillers during pregnancy | Avoiding headaches in pregnancy | Will headaches harm my baby?

What's causing my headaches during pregnancy?

There are a number of reasons why you might start to experience headaches after you get pregnant. During your first trimester, changes in your hormone levels and an increase in the amount of blood circulating in your body can lead to tension-type headaches – but fortunately, these usually settle down after the first three months.

Additionally, if you normally have a lot of caffeine in your diet and decide to cut down when you get pregnant, this can also lead to unpleasant “withdrawal” headaches – these should disappear after a few days as your body gets used to the change.

Other causes of headaches during pregnancy:

  • Hunger or thirst
  • Lack of sleep
  • Allergies
  • Eyestrain
  • Depression
  • Sinus congestion
  • Fatigue
  • Stress or anxiety

When should I contact my doctor?

Generally speaking, you don't need to worry about headaches during pregnancy, but it's worth speaking to your doctor to check there's nothing untoward going on if any of the following apply:

  • You've only started getting headaches since you became pregnant
  • You are in severe pain
  • You are getting headaches frequently
  • You've only started getting headaches in your second or third trimester.

Additionally, seek urgent medical advice if:

  • You develop a headache after any sort of head injury, even if it seems like just a bump on the head
  • Your headache is accompanied by a stiff neck or fever
  • Your headache is worsening and accompanied by visual changes, slurred speech, drowsiness or numbness
  • You have signs of sinusitis such as nasal congestion, fever or facial pain
  • You get headaches after reading or looking at a computer screen or your tablet/phone
  • You develop a sudden 'explosive' headache, which is a violent pain that may wake you up, persist and feel different to a normal tension headache.

Migraines during pregnancy

Around 16% of women experience a migraine for the first time whilst pregnant, and if you have suffered with them in the past you may find that your migraines get worse while you're pregnant. However, you might also be in for a reprieve – migraines have been said to improve in two-thirds of pregnancies, particularly if they are linked to your periods.

Migraines can be difficult to deal with at the best of times, let alone when you're pregnant, so it's important to alert your healthcare provider early, and to try and avoid any known triggers.

What's the difference between a migraine and a headache?

The pain you feel with headaches and migraines tends to be quite different. As a rule of thumb, here's what to look out for.

Headaches:

  • affect both sides of your head
  • feel mild to moderate in severity
  • can feel pressing or tightening (rather than throbbing)
  • don't cause other symptoms, such as nausea or vomiting
  • don't usually get worse when you engage in physical activity

Migraines:

  • tend to affect only one side of your head
  • are very painful
  • have a pulsing/throbbing sensation
  • may cause other symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting and/or sensitivity to sound and light
  • are made worse by physical activity

Can I take painkillers for headaches/migraines during pregnancy?
Pregnant woman taking painkillers for headache

It's safe to take paracetamol in pregnancy, but other medications such as aspirin, codeine or anti-inflammatories (ibuprofen) are not recommended for pregnant women. If you require stronger painkillers or medication for other reasons, it's important to consult your doctor or antenatal team for advice.

Is there any way to avoid headaches and migraines during pregnancy?

There are definitely steps you can take in order to minimise your risk of developing headaches and migraines:

I tried taking paracetamol which works a little but not enough to stop the thudding! 4head is amazing – I take it everywhere I go for instant relief. It doesn't last for very long, but it's great for slapping on before bed and then at least you can drift off comfortably.
  • Avoid triggers
  • Eat and drink frequently to avoid hunger or dehydration – low blood sugar is a common trigger so make sure you're well-fed and watered
  • Rest well and get enough sleep
  • Take part in some light exercise
  • Use a warm or cool compress – cold ones tend to work better for migraines
  • Take a shower or bath – cool for migraines, warm for tension headaches
  • Try relaxation techniques, such as meditation, yoga or pilates
  • Have a massage – or asking your partner for one if a professional is out of the question
  • Consider acupuncture – there's no documented evidence of its effectiveness, but it's safe in pregnancy.

Food can also play a surprising role in causing you discomfort – it's worth keeping a 'headache diary' if you find you're suffering from increased headaches during your pregnancy, to try and identify the triggers. When you get a headache or migraine, write down everything you've eaten in the past 24 hours, and what you were doing when the headache started.

Pregnancy diet to avoid headaches

Certain foods might also trigger a migraine (which is irritating if you've got very particular cravings):

If they are migraines, watch your blood sugar levels and note any particular foods that set them off.
  • Foods containing monosodium glutamate (MSG, commonly found in processed foods and takeaways)
  • Nitrites and nitrates (common in processed meats like hot dogs, salami, and bacon)
  • Artificial sweeteners
  • Certain beans and nuts
  • Aged cheese and cultured dairy products (like buttermilk and sour cream)
  • Certain fresh fruits (including bananas, papayas, avocados, and citrus)
  • Smoked fish
  • Chocolate and carob
  • Fermented or pickled foods (like soy sauce or sauerkraut)

Can headaches be a symptom of something else?

Severe headaches can be a sign of high blood pressure, so it's worth speaking to your doctor if you find yourself suffering. If you start to get headaches in your second or third trimester, they could be a symptom of preeclampsia, and may present with other symptoms such as visual changes, severe upper abdominal pain, nausea or swelling of the hands or face.

At every antenatal appointment, your blood pressure will be checked, and if there are any concerns about you having pre-eclampsia, the hospital will do further tests.

Will headaches harm my baby?

Headaches themselves pose no risk to your baby, but they can be a symptom of an underlying condition during pregnancy, so it's definitely worth seeking medical advice if you're concerned.

Do pregnancy headaches mean I'm having twins or have anything to do with my baby's gender?

Nope – the only way you'll be able to glean that information is with a scan.