Headaches during pregnancy

Headaches During Pregnancy

Experiencing a headache during pregnancy is not uncommon.  If you have always been susceptible to headaches, pregnancy can exacerbate them.  The exact reason why women experience more frequent headaches during pregnancy is not known, however it is possible that headaches are linked to hormone changes and the natural increase in blood circulation in your body during pregnancy.

Triggers of Headache

  • Dehydration – a lack of sufficient fluid intake may trigger a headache. It is important to keep your body well-hydrated when you are pregnant especially in the warm weather.  You should always carry a water bottle with you and drink regularly.
  • Low blood sugars – eating small frequent meals is vital during pregnancy. It is important to eat a balanced diet that helps support your body to nurture the growing fetus.  Due to an increased blood volume in a pregnant woman’s body, and the body’s adjustment to this increase, a pregnant woman requires regular flow of nutrients.  By skipping meals and not eating a nutritionally balanced diet this may result in low blood sugars, which in turn can result in a headache.
  • Lack of sleep – during pregnancy your body undergoes enormous change and requires more sleep than usual. Creating a new life is hard work.  Sleeplessness in pregnancy can be caused by inability to find a comfortable position as well as an active baby whose regular bouts of kicking may keep you awake.  Try and have a regular sleep pattern, make time to rest and try and stay relaxed.  At work try and find somewhere to put your feet up and relax during your lunch break.  Once you are back at home try and cut down on household chores and practise relaxation techniques such as yoga or meditation.
  • Stress – being stressed is a well-known contributor to headaches. It is important to avoid stress as much as possible and if you think stress is causing you headaches look for ways to reduce it.  If your headaches are related to muscle tension or posture you should see a physiotherapist and this may involve massage, manipulation, mobilisation and exercises you can continue for yourself at home. If thoughts of fears are the cause of your stress it is important to discuss this with your doctor or one of our midwives.
  • Caffeine withdrawal – headaches are a common side effect of caffeine withdrawal. One to two cups of coffee a day is considered safe during pregnancy.  If you are used to drinking more coffee you can substitute your missing cups with a decaf to overcome the physiological withdrawal associated with removing a beverage, which often acts as a form of comfort.  To avoid headaches wean yourself slowly off caffeine rather than going cold-turkey.

Strategies for Treating Headaches in Pregnancy

Pain relief such as Panadol is safe during pregnancy.  Follow the dosage instructions on the packet and check with one of our staff if you are unsure how much to take.  It is best to avoid taking Aspirin or Ibuprofen while you are pregnant.  Other strategies may be taking a warm bath, applying an ice-pack or a cold-compress to the back of your head or neck, or lying down and resting in a quiet, dark room.

When to Contact Your Doctor

Headaches during pregnancy are uncomfortable but can often be relieved by using Paracetamol and natural strategies.  Sometimes a headache late in the second or during the third trimester can signal that something is more serious.  A condition called pre-eclampsia, a blood pressure related disorder that affects pregnant women, can cause severe headaches.  You should contact your doctor or our staff if you have a sudden, severe headache, or if the headache is accompanied by blurred vision, nausea, vomiting, sudden swelling of your face, hands and feet, or pain in the upper right quadrant of your abdomen.

Very rarely headaches may have a more sinister cause such as meningitis (an infection of the membrane surrounding the brain) or can be due to a brain haemorrhage. Hence, very severe headaches with a sudden onset associated with nausea and vomiting, visual disturbances or neck stiffness should always be taken seriously.

If such symptoms occur, you should seek medical assistance immediately, call an ambulance or attend an emergency department.

Migraines During Pregnancy

Migraines are not your typical headache that you experience during pregnancy.  These severe throbbing headaches can affect one or both sides of your head and can last for hours or even days.  They are often preceded by auras which are neurological symptoms which can include blurred vision, flashes of light and numbness or tingling in your arms or legs.  Migraines can also cause severe nausea.  You can become more fatigued, experience dizzy spells and be sensitive to light and sound.  Many women have migraines for the first time when they are pregnant, while someone with a history of migraines will get them more often.  However some women who have a history of migraines related to their menstrual cycle actually end up getting headaches less often when they are pregnant, especially during the second and third trimesters.  It is thought to be because migraines in these women are caused by oestrogen withdrawal just before menstruation, but during pregnancy the levels of oestrogen remain high.  If you are a regular migraine sufferer and have been on medication in the past before your conceived, you should discuss this with your doctor or midwife as there are many safe medications to take to prevent migraines from occurring.

If you are ever in doubt just give the midwives in my rooms a call or you can contact me at any time either in my office or after hours via my paging service on 9387 1000.


Dr Len Kliman is one of Melbourne’s most experienced and highly regarded Obstetrician and Gyneacologists. He has been practicing obstetrics and gynaecology for over thirty years and during this time has delivered over 20,000 babies and still counting!