Most people experience headaches at some point in their life. However, during pregnancy and the postpartum period, headaches can be associated with more serious life-threatening issues. While the headache could be normal, it can also be a sign of a more serious condition, such as preeclampsia or brain abnormalities.
When to see the doctor
Any severe headache during pregnancy and postpartum can be a symptom of dangerous and life-threatening conditions. Untreated complications can be associated with abnormal vessels in the brain, like an aneurysm or elevated blood pressure, like preeclampsia and may lead to brain bleeding, a stroke, or infections in the brain such as meningitis or encephalitis.
You should call your doctor or immediately go to a hospital or call 911 or your local emergency number if you have the worst headache of your life ("thunderclap headache"), a sudden, severe headache, or any headache accompanied by:
Trouble seeing, speaking, or walking
Confusion or trouble understanding speech
Elevated blood pressure (above 140/90)
High fever, greater than 102 F to 104 F (39 C to 40 C)
Numbness, weakness or paralysis on one side of your body
A stiff neck
Nausea or vomiting (if not clearly related to the flu or a hangover)
What are thunderclap headaches?
Thunderclap headaches are exactly what they sound like. They appear all of a sudden, unexpectedly like a clap of thunder. These unexpected and sudden, and intense headaches peak quickly in less than a minute and can take up to one hour before they disappear, though they can last for many days.
Thunderclap headaches are uncommon, but when they appear, they can be a warning sign of potentially life-threatening conditions, including bleeding in and around the brain. You must seek immediate emergency medical attention if you experience a thunderclap headache.
Causes of regular headaches during pregnancy
Though it may seem redundant, hormones and stress can be the cause of most headaches during pregnancy and postpartum. During pregnancy, hormones are responsible for many positive changes that keep you and your baby healthy, but some side effects may be painful in the process, such as headaches.
Headaches during pregnancy can also be caused by changes in diet, like giving up caffeine. If leaving caffeine behind is important to you during pregnancy, make sure to wean off the cup o' Joe slowly to prevent severe headaches from caffeine withdrawal.
Treatment for typical headaches
Do not self-medicate with over-the-counter medications without first talking to your doctor or midwife. Tension headaches, those caused by stress and often appearing in the temples or back of the neck, can be treated with warm compresses and a dark, quiet space before turning to medications.
Headache pain during pregnancy will vary from woman to woman. Some report having migraine level headaches on occasion while others report having dull, light headaches every day. Even though headaches during pregnancy are common, severe pain should always be reported to your doctor.