About 15 percent of women experience severe headaches during pregnancy.
About 15 percent of women experience severe headaches during pregnancy. They’re generally more frequent in the first trimester and decrease in the last 6 months of pregnancy.
About 26 percent of headaches during pregnancy are tension headaches. Some women may also suffer from migraines that are accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light. In some cases, migraines include flashes of light and a tingling in the arms and legs.
Headaches during pregnancy can have several causes:
- Hormonal changes
- Increased blood volume
- Nasal congestion
- Stress and fatigue
- Hunger and low blood sugar
- Dehydration, especially if you’re experiencing nausea and vomiting
- Caffeine withdrawal if you abruptly stopped your caffeine intake
- Drink plenty of water.
Make sure you get enough sleep and rest during the day.
- Avoid stressful situations and don’t work too hard.
Use relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, yoga, or massages.
Reduce your stress level and avoid coffee, tea, chocolate, and bright lights, which can all cause headaches. Certain foods are also known to trigger migraines, including strong cheeses, cured meats, and foods containing monosodium glutamate.
Eat small, balanced meals and healthy snacks.
Do regular physical activity.
There are ways to reduce or relieve your headaches.
- Rest in a cool, dark, and quiet room.
Apply hot or cold compresses to your forehead or the back of your neck, or take a hot (but not too hot) bath.
- Massage your scalp. This can provide some relief.
If these measures aren’t sufficient, you can take acetaminophen (e.g., TylenolMD, AtasolMD). Avoid ibuprofen (e.g., AdvilMD), as its use has been associated with complications during pregnancy, such as miscarriages and heart problems in the baby. However, this medication is safe to use while breastfeeding.
Before taking any other headache or migraine medication, including any that were prescribed to you before your pregnancy, talk to your pharmacist or health care provider.
When should you speak with an expert?
If you have severe headaches, especially after 20 weeks of pregnancy, this may be a sign of preeclampsia (high blood pressure with protein in the urine). Preeclampsia poses health risks for both the mother and baby. Other signs and symptoms may also be present.
If you experience any of the following symptoms, contact your doctor or birthing centre:
Severe or persistent headaches (more than 3 days)
Pain in your stomach or upper abdomen, just below your ribs
Sudden swelling of your face, hands, feet, or ankles
Drowsiness or general deterioration
Things to keep in mind
Mild headaches are more frequent during the first trimester.
They can have many different causes.
If your headaches are severe and accompanied by symptoms such as blurred vision, pain under the ribs, or swelling of the face, hands, or feet, seek immediate medical attention.
Scientific review: Dr. Chantal Ouellet, physician
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: September 2020
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Doré, Nicole, and Danielle Le Hénaff. From Tiny Tot to Toddler: A practical guide for parents from pregnancy to age two. Quebec City, Institut national de santé publique du Québec. www.inspq.qc.ca
Ladewig, Patricia, et al. Maternal & Child Nursing Care. 3rd ed., Upper Saddle River, Prentice Hall, 2011.
Mayo Clinic. “What can I do about headaches during pregnancy? I’d rather not take medication.” www.mayoclinic.org
Negro, Andrea, et al. “Headache and pregnancy: A systematic review.” The Journal of Headache and Pain, vol. 18, no. 1, 2017.
NHS. “Ibuprofen for adults.” www.nhs.uk
NHS. “Headaches in pregnancy.” www.nhs.uk
Stanford Children’s Health. “Headaches in early pregnancy.” www.stanfordchildrens.org