Identifying Dangerous Headaches During Pregnancy

Headaches are common during pregnancy. Although they are painful, they are usually nothing to worry about. However, headaches during pregnancy can sometimes be a warning sign of a more serious problem, such as preeclampsia, a condition that involves high blood pressure.

Here’s what you need to know about the different types of headaches during pregnancy, how to recognize them, and what to do if you think a headache could be a sign of dangerous complications.

type of headache

Headaches are classified according to their cause and fall into two categories:

  • Primary headache, where the pain itself is the only problem
  • Secondary headaches, where the pain is caused by another disorder

About 40% of pregnant women report having headaches during pregnancy or postpartum (in the weeks following delivery). Most are primary headaches and less worrisome.

However, research suggests that secondary headaches may be more common in pregnant women than previously thought. One study found that 25% to 42% of pregnant women seeking treatment had secondary headaches.

During the first trimester, headaches can be triggered by nausea, vomiting, and dehydration from morning sickness, hormonal causes, and low blood sugar and caffeine withdrawal.

In the second and third trimesters, triggers include poor posture, lack of sleep, high blood pressure and diabetes.

Common types of headaches during pregnancy include:

  • Tension headache: Pain that feels like a bandage on the head, or pain in the neck and shoulders
  • Migraine: Pain that lasts for hours, sometimes days, and may include blurred vision, flashes of light, sensitivity to light, nausea, and vomiting
  • Sinus headache: pain or pressure in the forehead, cheeks, and around the eyes, as well as nasal congestion and congestion
  • Cluster headache: pain usually around one eye or side of the head that wakes you up at night and occurs regularly
  • Thunderclap headache: sudden, severe pain that peaks within a minute, lasts for at least five minutes, and may cause numbness and difficulty seeing, speaking, and walking

It is important to tell your healthcare provider about any headaches you experience during pregnancy.

Headache as a symptom of preeclampsia

When headaches during pregnancy are accompanied by dizziness, blurred vision, or blind spots, it’s time to call your obstetrician or healthcare provider.

These can be symptoms of serious complications, such as preeclampsia, which usually occurs after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Preeclampsia can damage organs such as the liver or kidneys and cause a decrease in the number of platelets, cells in the blood that are important for the clotting process.

One study found that pregnant women with high blood pressure and headaches were 17 times more likely to develop serious complications than preeclampsia.

In addition to high blood pressure (hypertension), other signs and symptoms of preeclampsia include:

  • stomach ache
  • protein in urine
  • swelling, usually in the feet, legs, face, and hands
  • sudden weight gain
  • nausea and vomiting

Pregnant women with type 1 or type 2 diabetes have a 2 to 4 times higher risk of preeclampsia.

Some people with preeclampsia experience a migraine-like headache — a throbbing headache with nausea and/or sensitivity to light or sound. This is another tip to contact your healthcare provider right away, especially if you don’t usually get migraines or if the pain is different, more intense, or longer lasting than the headaches you usually get.

If preeclampsia is suspected, you may be taken to the hospital for further evaluation and treatment.

If you are at risk for preeclampsia early in your prenatal visit, your healthcare provider may recommend that you take low-dose aspirin to help prevent preeclampsia and its associated complications. This usually starts between 12 and 28 weeks, but preferably before 16 weeks.

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If left untreated, preeclampsia can progress to eclampsia, including seizures and possibly coma and blindness. Both conditions are dangerous and can even be fatal to the mother and baby, requiring emergency treatment. In addition to treating the mother with medication to lower blood pressure, treatment usually includes delivering the baby.

Other warning signs

Other headache red flags include thunderclap headaches, which cause sudden, severe pain. Many people describe it as the biggest headache of their lives.

Other symptoms of a thunderclap headache include:

  • numbness
  • Difficulty seeing, talking, or walking
  • feel sick and vomit
  • high fever
  • hypertension

Contact your healthcare provider right away, as thunderclap headaches and high blood pressure later in pregnancy can be a sign of eclampsia, stroke, or pituitary apoplexyor bleeding from the pituitary gland, which controls hormones important for growth, milk production, and other vital bodily functions.


Call your healthcare provider if you have never had a headache and have had it during pregnancy, or if you are experiencing pain that is different, more severe, or longer than your usual headache, as this may be a warning Signal.


The good news is that most pregnancy headaches can be easily relieved with simple remedies, such as rest, relaxation, cold compresses, and regular meals and sleep.

Managing your anxiety and stress is an important part of keeping you and your baby safe. Schedule time to do things for yourself, such as going for a walk or going out with friends. Maybe try biofeedback, or listen to music or a book on tape.

Healthcare providers generally consider acetaminophen to be safe for occasional use during pregnancy. In recent years, however, research has raised the possibility of an association between prenatal acetaminophen use and childhood asthma, lower IQ and other conditions.

Another study suggested a possible link between acetaminophen use during pregnancy and behavioral and hyperactivity problems in 7-year-olds. Because of data limitations and study design, researchers could not determine whether the drugs were causing these problems in children.

Health officials also warn that the use of two other pain relievers during pregnancy — nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen and opioids such as codeine — may increase the risk of birth defects.

Therefore, it is always best to consult your healthcare provider before taking any medication or herbal supplement to make sure it is safe for you and your baby.


Headaches are common during pregnancy. While they were injured, most had nothing to worry about. However, naturally occurring hormonal, blood volume and weight changes during pregnancy can make women more prone to headaches, which are warning signs of serious medical complications such as preeclampsia.

Be sure to call your healthcare provider if your headache starts suddenly, especially after 20 weeks of pregnancy, or if your usual headache changes in location, severity, or duration.

See your doctor right away if you have headaches and other symptoms of preeclampsia, such as abdominal pain, swollen feet or legs, or problems seeing, walking, or speaking.