“I’ve got another headache!” You probably thought it was just a one-off and put it down to being overtired and then you got the second headache and the third and before long, you’re spotting a pattern. Pregnancy seems to bring on a litany of niggles and yes, getting headaches is another pregnancy symptom to add to the burgeoning list.
“Headaches can be a common symptom of pregnancy,” explains natural baby and parenting expert Justina Perry, and not only that, “about 10% of women suffer from severe migraines too”.
What causes headaches in pregnancy?
Well, we don’t really know why women get headaches during pregnancy. “The cause is unknown, but it’s thought to be due to hormonal changes and tension in the body,” says expert Justina Perry. It might also be down to dilation of veins in the brain, says MFM midwife Ann Richley. But while headaches are a nuisance and can leave you feeling wiped out, they are generally nothing to worry about. In fact, stop worrying – that could be making it worse!
Headaches by trimester
Headaches can strike any time during your pregnancy. Many mums-to-be report that it’s at its worst during the first trimester but according to MFM forum chat, the second trimester seems to be a particularly tough time.
First trimester: headaches often strike in early pregnancy as your body changes and you adopt new habits. You may be more worried or anxious than normal or you’ve made some changes to your diet, like cutting out coffee. Headaches can even be one of the signs that you are pregnant.
Second trimester: tension headaches during the second trimester are quite common as your growing womb is putting more strain on your body and you’re feeling more tired. It might also be making it harder to sleep or because you have a lot on your plate.
Third trimester: If you develop bad headaches or a really persistent migraine that won’t respond to paracetamol or rest in the second half of your pregnancy, see your midwife to rule out pre-eclampsia.
There could be a myriad reasons why your head is hurting. Below are some of the most common culprits:
Could it be low blood pressure? “Mine were due to low blood pressure, but they did disappear eventually!” says NewMrsM on our forums whose headaches were “the worst thing ever”.
Are you getting decent sleep? Lack of sleep and sometimes even too much sleep can contribute to tension headaches. Unfortunately during pregnancy, having difficulty sleeping is an all-too-common complaint.
Are you drinking enough water? “I got headaches at first. I told my midwife and she said just drink plenty of water, so I do and I [just get them] odd days, especially when I’m tired, so drink loads of water,” says gemlou.
Did you have lunch? While you don’t need to eat for two, you still need to make sure you’re eating enough to keep your energy levels up or it could trigger a headache.
Have you been feeling stressed? If being pregnant is causing you extra worry – for emotional, physical or financial reasons, or simply because carting around a bump is hard work – then the stress might bring on headaches.
Are you bunged up? Sinusitis and a stuffy nose, common in early pregnancy and during the second half of pregnancy, can bring on pressure headaches due to an increased blood supply in your body and higher progesterone levels.
Have you stopped drinking coffee? If you’re a heavy coffee drinker and you’ve recently found out you’re pregnant, it might be caffeine withdrawal that’s triggering your headaches.
How to treat pregnancy headaches?
Drink water: many headaches are caused by dehydration, especially if you’re at work and staring at a screen. Drink plenty of water and take regular screen breaks to rest your eyes. Most importantly, keep hydrated so if you want a change from water, try a soothing herbal tea instead. Steer clear of raspberry leaf tea until you’re 34 weeks as it can bring on early labour.
Eat a healthy snack: it’s easy if you’re busy to forget you need to eat more regularly when you’re pregnant. Getting hungry can cause headaches and dizziness so carrying cereal bars or dried fruit in your bag might just save you from fainting at the bus stop. It’s worth keeping a stash of snacks and water at your desk too.
Get topical relief: if you’d rather avoid medication, lots of mums on the MFM forums recommend a product called 4headstick, a rub-on, peppermint-based stick, which you apply to the area of pain. Putting a drop of lavender oil on a cool flannel and then lying down for a while can also help relieve the pain. If you’re suffering from a blocked nose or sinusitis, try saline nose drops or steam inhalation to clear your passages.
Alternative therapies: some women swear by acupuncture for pregnancy headaches but if the thought of needles puts you off, try shiatsu massage, which is less invasive, though tell the practitioner you are pregnant beforehand.
Here’s what some of our mums suggest:
4head strips and sticks
Sainte-Bernie says, “Personally I prefer the 4head strips – the effect seems to last a bit longer.” Remember to take them off if you go out though. “You do look stupid,” she admits.
MGMummy says, “Forehead stick, cooling gel pads and lots of water are the things that help my headaches. I know what you mean about not wanting to take paracetamol!”
A cold sponge
Jenny Cole says, “I suffered from headaches in my first trimester, and didn’t want to take too many pills, so I started applying a cold sponge to my forehead to help ease the pain. It worked brilliantly and allowed me to have a few minutes of me time when I was tired too.”
A nice long bath
Laura, 35, mum to Sam, 2, swapped paracetamol for relaxing baths. “When I first started getting pregnancy headaches I was taking paracetamol, but then I did worry that even that might not be a good idea, so I just switched to different habits – taking a long soothing bath with some nice candles and making sure I kept up my intake of water through the day. These actually really helped and it made me feel better to keep my pregnancy ‘natural’.”
Is it safe to take paracetamol when pregnant?
The good news is that paracetamol is generally considered safe to take in pregnancy and is probably the safest painkiller to take. If you’re only popping a pill now and again to ease a bad headache, it shouldn’t cause any trouble. In fact, many of you are comfortable with taking a painkiller once in a while if needed. We asked 102 MFMers and 80% said they took paracetamol during their pregnancy.
What about ibuprofen?
As for ibuprofen, it depends a little on what stage of pregnancy you’re at. A 2003 Californian study suggested that ibuprofen and aspirin increase the risk of miscarriage and the general advice from the NHS is to avoid taking ibuprofen during the first and third trimesters. If in doubt, always ask your midwife or GP.
And how about herbal remedies?
Dabbling with herbal remedies as the ‘natural’ option does not always mean safe. Talk to your doctor before taking any herbal supplements, as some of them have nasty side effects.
Could it be a migraine?
A migraine is a very different kettle of fish. It tends to be a throbbing pain on one side of your head and is often accompanied by nausea, vomiting, blurred vision and sound and light sensitivity. In comparison, headaches are usually less intense, all over, and can be eased by normal pain relief. Migraines can last from between 4 and 72 hours. Normal painkillers don’t usually work so if you think you have a migraine, go and see your GP.
The headaches are not going away. When should I go to the doctor?
“There is no limit as to how long you can take paracetamol for,” says our GP Philippa Kaye, “but do speak to your doctor if you have a pain that does not go away or feel you need to keep taking it, as there may be a serious cause for your pain or there could be another treatment.”
While most pregnancy headaches are just an unpleasant symptom, they can occasionally be an indication of something more serious. If you develop a serious headache in the 2nd or 3rd trimester, then you should tell your midwife or GP, as there’s a very small chance it could be a symptom of pre-eclampsia.