Pregnancy is an incredible journey, a magic experience of growing a new life while bearing witness to the astounding things your body is capable of. But as most expectant women will tell you, being pregnant is not all roses. From the moment of conception, your body is changing. And while that is exciting, it also brings many discomforts. Leading the way? Headaches.
Pregnancy headaches are extremely common and typically manifest during the first and third trimester. The main culprit of these are your body’s elevated hormone levels and increase in blood volume. Other triggers include lack of sleep, poor posture, and tension and stress caused by carrying a baby, especially as it gets bigger. The vast majority of headaches experienced during pregnancy and the postnatal period are benign, with approximately 90% of occurrences of head pain during these phases representing migraine or tension-type headaches.
The Pregnancy Headaches that Aren’t Benign
But, what about the 10% that isn’t benign? According to a review published in The Obstetrician & Gynaecologist, pregnancy has also been linked to an increased risk of developing secondary headaches related to a number of underlying health conditions, some of which are life-threatening. In the review, authors looked at the 2006-2008 report on “Confidential Enquiries into Maternal Deaths in the United Kingdom”, and found that neurological conditions represented the third most common cause of death among pregnant women. Moreover, the review notes that women who experience migraines are more than twice as likely to experience pre-eclampsia—high blood pressure and protein in the urine—than those who do not.
Other conditions associated with headaches during pregnancy include idiopathic intracranial hypertension (IIH) and cerebral venous thrombosis (CVT). IIH is a rare condition characterized by an accumulation of pressure inside the skull and is more prevalent in obese women of childbearing age than in other populations. The condition can arise for the first time or worsen during pregnancy and can be fatal if not addressed immediately.
CVT is a blood clot in the dural venous sinuses, which are responsible for draining blood from the brain. Pregnancy is a recognized risk factor for this condition, and cesarean section, infection, anemia, and vomiting further increase one’s chances of developing CVT. Headache occurs as a symptom in 80-90% of all CVT patients, and is often the first sign that something is awry.
Significantly, increased intracranial pressure has also been associated with sleep apnea, a condition that is linked to a heightened risk of pregnancy complications such as high blood pressure and gestational diabetes. While research on the relationship between pregnancy, headache, and sleep problems is still underway, a growing number of obstetricians have recognized the possible connections between pregnancy and sleep disorders.
Where a headache during pregnancy is concerned, the health—and the lives—of both the patient and child can be contingent upon a practitioner’s ability to recognize and address the source of a woman’s head pain and their awareness of rarer and more severe headache causes among pregnant patients.
Knowing When to Seek Treatment for Your Pregnancy Headaches
Most likely, you will experience headaches during pregnancy. But how do you know whether or not the headache is a sign of something more? If your headache symptoms differ in any way from those associated with your usual migraines, you should inform your health care provider.
When you seek care, your doctor may use brain imaging to help pinpoint the cause of headaches deemed worthy of further investigation. Rest assured that this is safe for you and your baby. Once the root cause of a headache has been discovered, your doctor will be able to administer appropriate care, be it in the form of emergency intervention or an exploration of options for relieving migraine headaches without drugs.
During pregnancy, your body is going through major physical and emotional changes, which can bring both joys and discomforts, and often a yo-yo between the two. At times, the discomforts can be scary, as you experience new symptoms, some of which you didn’t expect or don’t understand. While most of the time there is no reason to be worried, never hesitate to speak with your doctor about things that may be alarming you. Doing so will help keep you and your baby healthy, and allow you to experience the magic of pregnancy.