Why We Get Early Pregnancy Headaches (and How to Stop Them!)

The great news is that you’re pregnant! The not-so-great news no one has told you about is that early pregnancy headaches are a real f*cking bummer. 

Most of us prepare ourselves for morning sickness during pregnancy. After all, it’s one of the most widely discussed early pregnancy symptoms. Headaches during pregnancy don’t receive as big of a spotlight.

If you’re sitting there with your head in your hands, praying for the pain to stop, you know how frustrating and debilitating a headache can be.

The EXCEPTIONALLY crappy part about early pregnancy headaches is that so many of our usual medicines and remedies are said to be off limits while our bodies are housing a baby. But we’ve got you covered, friend.

Grab an ice pack for your temples because we’re breaking down the most common causes, known headache triggers, and acceptable treatment options to get you through!

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Why Do We Get Early Pregnancy Headaches?

Pinpointing the exact cause of a headache during pregnancy isn’t always easy, probably because the reason behind the pain isn’t always straightforward

If you’re trying to understand the culprit behind the ache inside your head, check out the list of potential causes below.

1. Changes in Hormone Levels

From pregnancy acne to nausea during the first trimester, hormones are the catalyst behind many pregnancy annoyances, especially during the early weeks and months. 

Considering how upending hormonal shifts can be, it might not surprise you that they’re a common cause of headaches. Once implantation happens and our bodies kick into full-blown pregnancy, our bodies produce a ton of both estrogen and progesterone

While these reproductive hormones are vital to the growth of our developing embryos, research shows they can also lead to headaches. 

2. Low Blood Sugar

Thanks to the consistent bouts of nausea many of us experience during early pregnancy, there’s a good chance we’re not getting enough to eat. The longer we go between meals, the more likely it is that our blood sugar will drop.

I know it’s hard to think about eating when you’re worried about throwing up, but make sure you’re getting something in your system, mama. Low blood sugar can lead to symptoms like shakiness, sweating, and anxiety, and it can also worsen your headaches during pregnancy. 

Keep your hunger and blood sugar in check by regularly eating small meals and snacks. You can load up on carbohydrates like protein bars and nut butters to keep yourself going.

And don’t forget to load your purse and the console of your car with ginger chews!

3. Dehydration

In an article from Medical News Today, physician assistant Holly Ernst explains dehydration occurs more often during pregnancy than in any other period. 

What is the most common cause of this? Not drinking enough water!

Whether you’re just a lousy water drinker, period (me!), or nausea is making it hard to keep fluids down, you’re at a higher risk of getting dehydrated when you’ve got a bun in the oven, even more so if you’re dealing with hyperemesis.

What’s a standard side effect of dehydration? Headaches, of course.

Making sure to stay hydrated can help alleviate pregnancy headaches.

Carry a water bottle with you wherever you go, and try your best to take sips throughout the day continually. If a little bit of flavor entices you to drink more, try some Liquid IV packs to boost your hydration even more.

4. Caffeine Withdrawal Headaches

The experts at the American Pregnancy Association say that caffeine is not a good idea during pregnancy, and to this I say, damn them. 

Unfortunately for most of us coffee camels, quitting our bad habit is easier said than done. Giving up caffeine, especially if you’re used to drinking a lot of it, can lead to painful headaches. 

Experts claim there’s about a 50% chance we’ll get headaches when we stop drinking coffee, soda, or tea. Luckily, they’re only supposed to last two to nine days. So bust out that water bottle and hydrate yourself to keep the caffeine withdrawal at a minimum!

5. Stress Levels

No matter how excited you are to become a parent, the sudden realization that your life is about to change drastically can send anybody into a spiral of stress and anxiety—the result? Annoying tension headaches that make us want to crawl back into bed. 

If you’re dealing with pregnancy anxiety or stress, make sure you prioritize self-care

6. Changes to Sleep Schedule

You’re experiencing the fatigue that often comes with the early weeks of pregnancy and decide to settle down for the evening. You lie down, put your head on the pillow, and close your eyes, but after a few minutes, you notice that sleep isn’t happening.

You might be dealing with another fun early pregnancy side effect…insomnia

As if feeling tired and unable to sleep isn’t frustrating enough, why not add that not getting enough rest also leads to headaches

What Do Early Pregnancy Headaches Feel Like? Are They All the Same?

You might think a headache is a headache, but they’re actually quite different. Whatever is causing your early pregnancy headaches will determine how they feel.

For example, if hormonal changes, fatigue, or low blood sugar are the culprit, you might notice a dull ache throughout your entire head. Caffeine withdrawal headaches, however, can get quite severe and usually start behind your eyes and move upwards to the front of your head. 

With tension headaches, you might experience discomfort and achiness in your neck muscles and your head. 

Are Migraines More Common During Pregnancy?

If you’ve never experienced migraine headaches, count your blessings. This type of headache goes well beyond dull pain and muscle tension. 

Unfortunately, they’re also a common type of headache during pregnancy, especially during the first trimester. In fact, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia says that 15-20% of pregnant people will have migraines. 

You can identify migraines by various symptoms, such as:

  • Severe Pain, Often on One Side of the Head
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Sensitivity to Light and Noise
  • Irritability

Some of us will have something called a “migraine with aura.” Aura migraines come with different symptoms, including dizziness, seeing flashes of light, and pins and needle sensations in our arms and legs. These aura effects can start before the actual headache begins or simultaneously. 

Will Pregnancy Headaches End in the Second Trimester?

Headaches during pregnancy aren’t fun, but they are pretty common. The good news is that, by the second and third trimesters, they get a lot better! 

Some people experience an uptick in the number of headaches they get during the last weeks before delivery, but they often improve after the first trimester. 

The Best Options for Pregnancy Relief During the First Trimester

I know how badly you want headache relief in the first trimester. However, before you start ransacking your medicine cabinet for treatment options, you’ll want to know what’s safe to take while expecting. 

Just as there are foods to avoid during pregnancy, like sushi and soft cheese, there are also medicines that aren’t safe. If you’re searching for safe pain relief medications, your best bet is acetaminophen, i.e., Tylenol. Ibuprofen and NSAIDs can decrease blood flow to your developing baby’s kidneys and other organs. 

Natural Remedies for Headaches During Pregnancy

When I was pregnant, I was paranoid about everything I put in my body. Even when my doctor told me it was safe, I remained unconvinced. As someone who gets terrible headaches typically and got even more while pregnant, I was desperate for pain relief alternatives I felt comfortable with.

Luckily, there are several excellent options.

If you want to try natural remedies for headaches while pregnant, the options below might bring you some well-deserved relief.

1. Cold Therapy

I’m a big fan of using cold to combat my headaches. From cool washcloths over my eyes to baggies of ice on top of my head, these treatments are a favorite of mine.

This technique works because it cools the blood flowing through our heads and helps restrict dilated blood vessels that often lead to headaches. 

While simple options, like the ice and washcloth mentioned above, definitely help, there are plenty of reliable products that headache sufferers love, such as:

Recently, a friend introduced me to my new favorite headache treatment–the headache hat! These are cold compresses you can wear. You store them in the freezer until you’re ready and then put them on when you feel a headache starting.

Warning, though, these hats can be intense! While I love them, I can usually only use them for a few minutes at a time.

2. Lying in a Quiet, Dark Room

While this tip is great for anyone experiencing occasional headaches, it’s a fantastic option for a full-blown migraine.

Since migraines often cause light and noise sensitivity, lying down in a quiet, dark place can serve as a trustworthy treatment option—bonus points for bringing in a cold compress to lie down with. 

3. Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate

It’s easy to end up dehydrated when you’re pregnant, so drinking plenty of water is crucial, especially if you’re struggling with early pregnancy headaches. If you have difficulty drinking plain water, you can always add flavoring

As we mentioned earlier, you can also use Liquid IV during pregnancy (just not the Sleep Multiplier version because it contains valerian root) for a quick boost of hydration. 

4. Acupuncture

I’ve talked to many mamas who were nervous about trying acupuncture during pregnancy. If this sounds like you, let me try to ease your worries. Acupuncture is perfectly safe while you’re expecting, and studies have shown its efficacy for treating migraines.

It’s also an excellent option for natural headache relief without painkillers. 

Just make sure to find a licensed acupuncturist who specializes in prenatal care, as there are specific points you shouldn’t use during pregnancy.

5. Stress Relief

Per the Mayo Clinic, stress is the most common cause of tension headaches. When you combine the natural anxiety that can come with pregnancy with other possible triggers, it seems inevitable that headaches will pop up.

If you’re tired of popping Tylenol and want to combat the frustration of headaches during pregnancy, why not examine your stress management techniques?

Self-care is an important part of pregnancy and things such as journaling can help alleviate pregnancy headaches.

Self-care for moms is vital. If you want to lower your daily stress level, the tips below can help:

  • Start Journaling
  • Meditate
  • Practice Gentle Exercise
  • Do Yoga
  • Go On Date Nights with Your Partner
  • Try a New Hobby
  • Go for a Walk

When Should You Worry About Headaches During Pregnancy?

There’s no denying it; headaches are the picture of misery and discomfort. No matter how bad they hurt, they’re not usually a cause for concern–even though it might feel like someone is jabbing an ice pick through your brain!

There are times, however, when you need to pay closer attention to what’s happening inside your head. 

5-8% of pregnancies will result in a severe complication called preeclampsia. This condition is a high blood pressure disorder that causes 10-15% of maternal deaths worldwide.

One of the most common symptoms of this syndrome is a headache.

If you’re experiencing a severe headache that won’t go away, even after you’ve taken medication, call your doctor ASAP! They will likely bring you in right away to run tests for preeclampsia.

Dealing With Your Early Pregnancy Headaches

I could sit here and try to pep talk you into cutting your headaches some slack, but let’s face it, they suck. No matter how often you hear someone say, “Yes, but when your baby’s here, it’ll all be worth it!” it won’t change how badly you feel like your brain is waging war against you. 

Just remember, there are things you can do to try and overcome the problem. Whether you grab a bottle of Tylenol, throw on a headache hat, or practice some stress relief, there are ways to find some relief.

And with a bit of hope and optimism, once you get through those first few months of pregnancy, your head will get its act together and give you a break!

Have you found any tricks that help you deal with early pregnancy headaches?

Pregnancy comes with its fair share of side effects. Learn more about what to expect with the articles below: