Headache During Pregnancy: What You Need To Know

Published July 12th, 2022 by Bridget Reed
Fact Checked by
Camille Freking
Medically Reviewed:
Chris Riley

Bearing a child can be the source of lots of joy and excitement.

However, it can also be a literal and metaphorical headache. A headache during pregnancy is a common symptom, but the good news is that there are many remedies to try to fix it.

So what exactly causes a pregnancy headache? What is it supposed to feel like? And how do you alleviate the discomfort quickly? Here’s everything you need to know.

What Causes Headaches During Pregnancy?

Headaches are especially common during the first trimester and third trimester of pregnancy.

In most cases, the underlying cause of the headache is not directly linked to pregnancy in the first place.

Pregnant people with a history of migraines and cluster headaches tend to have a higher risk of pregnancy-related headaches. Let’s look at other factors. 

Hormonal Changes 

It’s no secret that the body undergoes a significant amount of physical change during pregnancy, and these changes may also be the primary cause of increased headaches.

One of the main causes is a sharp surge in hormones. Not only can this shift your mood and behavior, but it might also lead to more frequent headaches.

Increase in Blood Volume

Additionally, the body’s blood volume increases during pregnancy.

This significant rise can lead to pounding headaches from high blood pressure, especially during early pregnancy and the third trimester.

While these are the physiological reasons why a pregnant individual might experience a headache, they can be further aggravated by several secondary triggers.

pregnant woman with a headache image

Sleep Changes

As pregnancy progresses, individuals have less deep sleep and wake up more often during the night, making sleep feel less refreshing or satisfying.

Not only can a lack of sleep affect mood and overall wellness, but it can also worsen headaches.

Research has found a relationship between sleep deprivation and migraine headaches.

However, it’s a double-edged sword because people with migraines are more likely to suffer from insufficient sleep.

Caffeine Withdrawal

Among many substances to avoid during pregnancy is caffeine.

And while it’s still okay to have that cup of morning coffee, pregnant women are advised to cut back because caffeine can constrict the blood vessels in the uterus and placenta, reducing the blood supply to the fetus. That might inhibit its growth.

Because of that, when you cut back on caffeine, your blood vessels open up and increase blood flow to your brain.

This sudden change can cause painful withdrawal headaches as your body adjusts to this new physical phenomenon. 

Stress

Pregnancy is beautiful and exciting, but we also know it can be a major source of stress.

Thinking about finances, life adjustments, and everything in between can make you feel super overwhelmed. 

Tension headaches are a common type of headache caused by stress and muscle tension.

It’s unknown why stress causes this reaction, but experts think it might be due to increased muscle contraction during stressful moments.

Dehydration

In general, fluid intake needs to increase during pregnancy to help support fetal circulation, blood volume, and amniotic fluid.

Drink eight to 10 glasses of water each day to ensure hydration.

If you’re not getting enough water, you might become dehydrated. Among the symptoms of dehydration, such as lightheadedness, dark urine, and fatigue, headaches are common. You can usually fix the problem by drinking water and resting.

Diet

You are eating for two when pregnant. While it is important to ensure a healthy diet, undereating or overeating can affect your comfort levels.

Low blood sugar can be a headache trigger, so try eating more fruit and complex carbohydrates while pregnant. 

How Do Headaches and Migraines Differ?

Migraines are super common during pregnancy. When people hear the word migraine, they usually think of a severe headache. However, headaches are just one symptom of migraines

Migraines are neurological issues involving the nerve pathways and chemicals within them. Changes in brain activity affect the blood within and around the brain, causing various symptoms.

In addition to severe headaches, migraines usually present as nausea, dizziness, extreme fatigue, and increased sensitivity to light. It’s essential to know the difference, as a migraine might result from another underlying condition that requires attention. 

If your headache presents as severe pain, it is important to contact your doctor or OB-GYN. 

How Can You Alleviate Pregnancy Headaches?

Alleviating a pregnancy headache is dependent on the underlying cause. With that said, here are a few remedies that might be helpful.

Cold Compress

One of the most effective ways to relieve a headache is by using a cold compress. Cold can constrict your blood vessels to decrease blood flow to the brain, which might be the reason for your headache in the first place.

You can make a cold compress by running a washcloth under cold water and then wringing it out until damp.

If you have a sinus headache (pain in the front of your head around your nose and eyes), you should place the compress on your eyes. If the headache is tension based (feels like a band wrapped around your head), then you should put the compress on your forehead.

Rest and Relax

Resting or taking a nap might be the key to alleviating a headache. In most cases, a headache is only temporary and goes away on its own within an hour.

Especially if the underlying cause is stress, giving yourself some time to chill might help you overcome even the most intense head pain.

If a headache lasts longer than a few days or worsens over time, you should contact a medical professional to ensure everything is okay.

Exercise and Eat Right

While there is not necessarily any evidence that exercising and eating right will prevent a headache, it can certainly help manage some of the underlying conditions that might otherwise lead to a headache.

Exercising and living a healthy lifestyle can lower stress, give you more energy, manage your sleeping habits, and more.

When pregnant, you’ll need to change some of your exercise routines accordingly. However, you don’t need to give up being physically active. There are plenty of prenatal yoga classes or exercise classes for pregnant individuals.

Also, you can consider low-impact exercises such as swimming, cycling, or walking to help manage weight and mood without affecting the joints.

Practice Good Posture

Poor posture can cause tension in the upper back, neck, and shoulders, leading to more frequent headaches.

Since bearing a child's weight can affect posture, it’s important to try to practice proper mechanics to reduce those nagging headaches.

To improve your posture while pregnant, try holding your head up straight with your chin tucked. Keep your shoulder blades back and your chest forward, ensuring that your earlobes align with the middle of your shoulders.

Pain Relief Medication

Over-the-counter pain medications are not an actual fix to any form of pain, as it doesn’t address the underlying causes of headaches. However, you can use them to your advantage when headaches are too much to bear.

Pain relief medications that do not thin the blood, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), are generally considered safe to use during pregnancy. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) that affect blood flow and kidneys (like ibuprofen) are not recommended. 

Always check with your healthcare provider before taking new medications or supplements while pregnant. Even prescription pain medications (like codeine-based drugs) can be an issue during pregnancy. 

Get a Massage

If you have a headache, this might be a great excuse to pamper yourself.

Getting a shoulder and neck massage can help loosen stiff muscles and relieve the feelings of a tension headache quickly and effectively.

Additionally, it can help lower stress and make you feel more relaxed, boosting your mood.

Massages can also loosen your muscles and bring you relief from joint or muscle pain associated with bearing all of the physical and emotional weight of a child.

Acupuncture can also alleviate headache pain and is considered safe for pregnant people. 

In Conclusion

Headaches during pregnancy are common and can be caused by several different triggers.

Hormone shifts, increased blood volume, stress, sleep changes, caffeine withdrawal, and dehydration are just a few examples.

Headaches differ from a migraine, which is neurological, with headaches as a symptom.

Migraines usually co-occur with nausea, dizziness, fatigue, and sensitivity to light. These are also common during pregnancy.

You can alleviate the pain associated with headaches depending on the cause.

Rest, cold compresses, pain relief medication, massages, and an active lifestyle are just a few ways that you can bring about relief for the long haul.

References, Studies and Sources:

Cardiovascular Physiology of Pregnancy | AHA Journals.

Pregnancy and Sleep | Sleep Foundation

Sleep Deprivation and Migraines | Sleep Foundation

Moderate daily caffeine intake during pregnancy may lead to smaller birth size | National Institutes of Health.

Tension headache - Symptoms and causes | Mayo Clinic

How much water should I drink during pregnancy? | ACOG.

Migraine vs. Headache: How to Tell the Difference | Penn Medicine

Exercise and Migraine | American Migraine Foundatio

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