Why Do Women Experience Pregnancy Headaches?

Plus, 7 ways to prevent and treat migraines during pregnancy
Pregnant woman with headache sitting on couch

Pregnancies are like seashells: No two are exactly alike — which is why you may have experienced pounding migraine pain while others enjoy 40 weeks of pure bliss. Neurologist Nasima Shadbehr, DO, explains.

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What is migraine?

Headaches fall into two categories: primary or secondary. Secondary headaches are caused by an underlying health problem, such as a sinus infection or high blood pressure. Primary headaches are self-contained — the pain you feel is a direct result of the headache itself. Migraines are a classic example.

Migraine sufferers often experience:

  • Moderate to severe, throbbing head pain.
  • Symptoms — including increased sensitivity to light, noise or smells, nausea, vomiting and loss of appetite — that last between four hours and three days.

If you experience a migraine while pregnant, it often can go hand-in-hand with aura, too. Aura is a temporary sensory disturbance that may include visual changes, numbness and tingling, or speech changes.

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Why do I get migraines during pregnancy?

So what is it about having a bun in the oven that makes your head hurt (other than thinking about college tuition)? Blame it on the hormones. The very things that help your body keep your fetus healthy and nourished also up your headache quota. So does an increase in blood volume, which happens during the first trimester.

Other factors that lead to headaches during pregnancy include:

More than a quarter of women have migraines during reproductive years. Women who have migraines are more likely to have them during pregnancy as well. But in cases involving secondary headaches, causes include:

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  • Preeclampsia (high blood pressure while pregnant).
  • Vein thrombosis (blood clots in the brain).
  • Sinus infections.
  • Brain tumors.
  • Stroke risk.

 “We look at everyone closely and assess their symptoms,” notes Dr. Shadbehr. “The first question we want to answer is, ‘Is this a primary headache or a warning sign of an underlying condition?’”

How do I get rid of a migraine while pregnant?

The good news? “Most women see an improvement in the number of migraines they experience as their pregnancy goes on,” reports Dr. Shadbehr. But to better cope when the headaches just won’t quit, she recommends these seven tips:

  • Keep a headache diary: By tracking your headaches and symptoms, it’s easier to notice any changes that your doctor should know about.
  • Know your migraine triggers: A headache diary can also help you recognize and avoid potential triggers. That way, if it’s cheese that sets you off, you won’t put a slice in your afternoon sandwich. Other common triggers include processed meats, chocolate, MSG and ripe bananas.
  • Hydrate: Dr. Shadbehr recommends drinking about 8 to 10 glasses of water each day, but each person’s water requirements differ.
  • Get enough sleep: Eight hours of uninterrupted sleep each night is ideal.
  • Try safe home remedies: Lying in a dark room or putting a cold rag over your head can provide some relief. “But discuss any natural remedies with a physician before using them,” cautions Dr. Shadbehr. “The different substances in natural remedies could negatively affect you or your future child.”
  • Explore cognitive behavioral therapy or biofeedback: Both can teach you ways to cope with headache pain by changing the way you think.
  • Try physical therapy: Poor posture, especially late in pregnancy, can lead to headaches. Strengthening the neck and shoulder muscles through PT can help combat this. (Dr. Shadbehr recommends a good massage, too.)

Dr. Shadbehr emphasizes that it’s wise to include your doctor in any decision making, especially when considering medication:“It should be a joint and educated decision between the patient, their neurologist and often, their Ob/Gyn. Together, we determine the best treatment approach for primary or secondary headaches.”

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