Many women get headaches during pregnancy, and if you’re already prone to headaches, you may find them getting worse while you're expecting (sorry!). Here’s what you need to know.
Why am I getting headaches? Women often get headaches during pregnancy and they are not usually a cause for concern. "Some women find that the hormonal changes in pregnancy trigger headaches," says Amanda Selk, an OB/GYN at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto. As your pregnancy progresses, carrying the extra weight of your baby belly can result in headaches related to poor posture and tension.
On top of the pregnancy-related causes, many regular causes of headaches are still at play when you're expecting. Common triggers include tight head, neck and back muscles, sinus congestion, dehydration, hunger and stress.
If you’re experiencing headaches and can’t determine the cause, Heather Martin, an Edmonton-based midwife, recommends talking to your health care provider, who may recommend you get your eyes checked. "Some women experience a change in their vision during pregnancy. It could be that your prescription needs to be changed."
How can I relieve headache pain when I'm pregnant? To keep tension in your shoulders and neck at bay, you can take warm baths or try massage, acupuncture or chiropractic services. Getting enough rest is also key to preventing and dealing with headaches. Stay hydrated by drinking lots of water—a glass of water at the onset of a headache can also help relieve pain—and eat regular meals.
Tylenol has long been considered the safest over-the-counter medication for pregnant women, although a 2016 study in the International Journal of Epidemiology found a link between acetaminophen and autism. While studies like this tend to cause panic, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take Tylenol. “It’s not a warning that women should stay completely clear of acetaminophen,” says David Olson, a professor of obstetrics and gynaecology, paediatrics and physiology at the University of Alberta. As with all medications during pregnancy, women should take the lowest dose possible for the shortest period of time.
Selk notes that low doses of caffeine can ease headaches and are not harmful while pregnant (up to 300 mg a day is considered safe), so you could try having a cup of black tea or a small cup of coffee.
When to worry about headaches during pregnancy While headaches can be agonizing, they are rarely dangerous. But some can signal a serious problem: "A concerning headache can be associated to preeclampsia," says Martin. "If there's a sudden onset and it won't go away; and if there's visual disturbances such as flashing lights or sparks, similar to a migraine, you need emergency assessment." In this case, do whatever your health care provider has asked you to do in an emergency, like page them or go to the hospital.
Selk also advises calling your doctor or midwife if a headache doesn’t get better with two doses of extra-strength Tylenol, and if you’re also vomiting, if it occurs after trauma such as bumping your head, if you have any numbness or weakness of any part of your body with the headache, if you have vision changes or if you have high blood pressure.