Are Pregnancy Migraines Linked to Miscarriages and Other Complications?
Medically reviewed by Breanna Herring, Certified Midwife.
Women are far more likely than men to suffer migraine headaches and the frequency of getting migraines tends to increase during a woman’s childbearing years.
Research has found that some women who experience migraines during pregnancy may be at a higher risk for miscarriage and other pregnancy complications.
If you or someone you know is experiencing migraines during pregnancy, it's important to understand the potential risks and seek medical attention.
Related: 6 Symptoms of Pregnancy No One Tells You About
Studying the effects of migraine headaches during pregnancy
A 2019 research study published in “Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain” evaluated the outcomes of pregnant people in Denmark who experience migraine headaches. The study used a comprehensive register looking at over 22,000 pregnant women with migraines and compared it to nearly 10 times the number of pregnant women who did not experience migraine.
So, what did they find?
Migraines during pregnancy are linked to more complications than just the debilitating pain they cause. According to the study, pregnant women with migraines have an increased risk of several different types of adverse pregnancy outcomes.
Most notably, researchers found an increase in the risk of miscarriage, cesarean delivery or emergency C-sections, and an increased risk of giving birth to a child with low birth weight.
There is also evidence that migraines during pregnancy can lead to an increased risk of high blood pressure, preeclampsia, and preterm births.
Newborns of mothers who experience migraines throughout their pregnancy have an increased risk of febrile seizures and respiratory distress.
Knowing that migraine headaches may increase the risk of pregnancy complications in the third trimester, it is important to work with your healthcare provider on your treatment options and use any available and safe interventions to maximize your chance of a healthy pregnancy outcome.
What is a migraine headache?
First off, what is a migraine headache?
Migraine headaches are a neurological condition, much different than tension or sinus headaches. The pain is often described as a throbbing or pulsing sensation that is usually felt on one side of the head.
Difference Between Tension Headaches and Migraines
Tension headaches are the most common type of headache. These headaches are characterized by a dull, aching pain that can be felt on both sides of the head. The pain may be mild, moderate, or severe and can last anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours.
Migraines, on the other hand, are more severe and can be accompanied by other symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light and sound, and visual disturbances. A migraine attack can last from several hours to several days.
Before you attempt to try and treat yourself, it is important to work closely with your healthcare provider regarding any symptoms you may be experiencing and to come up with a solution that is right for you.
Why do people get migraine headaches during pregnancy?
Migraine headaches are not typically a new diagnosis that relates to pregnancy. In fact, at least half of people who have a migraine diagnosis will note that their symptoms actually improve during pregnancy.
Hormonal changes during pregnancy can trigger migraines or make them worse. Particularly, women who experience migraines before pregnancy may find that their migraines become more frequent or severe during pregnancy. Many people who are pregnant get more frequent headaches, due to changes in blood flow during pregnancy.
Other pregnant people may get headaches that are triggered by cutting their caffeine intake. These can be quite painful but are different than migraine headaches. Migraine headaches not only cause a pounding pain in the head but they are usually coupled with either nausea, light sensitivity or vision changes.
Is there a link between pregnancy migraine headaches and miscarriages?
According to recent research, there appears to be a slight increase in miscarriage risk for people who have migraine headaches. A recent study suggested that the risk of miscarriage is about 10% higher in people who have migraine headaches when compared to the risk of miscarriage in people who do not have migraines.
Are migraine headaches a potential miscarriage symptom?
While a migraine headache is not a warning sign of a miscarriage, people who are experiencing a miscarriage may get a sudden headache due to changes in hormone levels. If you are in the first trimester and have a sudden headache along with abdominal cramping, vaginal bleeding or other concerning signs, call your obstetrician or healthcare provider for further guidance.
Migraines are most concerning if experienced during the third trimester of pregnancy as they can increase the risk of serious pregnancy complications such as preterm birth and preeclampsia or other hypertension disorders.
What are some common triggers of pregnancy migraine headaches?
Migraine triggers are different for each person. According to the American Pregnancy Association, there are many common triggers to migraines including:
- Skipped meals
- Lack of sleep
Other migraine triggers may be dehydration and lack of sleep — common risks for pregnant people experiencing morning sickness and insomnia. It’s especially important to prioritize getting enough sleep during pregnancy for both your own health and the health of your baby.
Some people have found it very helpful to try and pinpoint their migraine triggers by keeping a migraine diary and recording the type of pain felt, the symptoms they had coupled with their migraine, the time it started and ended, and what they consumed 24 hours prior to the migraine starting.
Documenting specific food choices or environmental changes may help you identify specific migraine triggers and avoid these in the future.
Tips for Dealing With Migraines During Pregnancy
What are some ways to help treat migraines? Some natural and non-invasive ways to try and help relieve and prevent migraines include:
- Taking a cold shower or placing a cold towel on your forehead or behind your neck
- Turning off the lights and being in a dark room
- Taking a short nap and elevating your legs
- Exercising to get the blood flowing
- Eating a balanced and healthy diet as well as making sure to get plenty of fluids.
Risks of Ibuprofen and OTC medications during pregnancy
Unfortunately, many OTC medication options for safely treating migraine headaches in pregnancy may be limited. The first-line interventions that may be recommended to treat headaches in pregnancy are typically non-pharmacologic methods that don’t pose a safety risk to the baby.
Ibuprofen (Motrin) is not safe to take during pregnancy and should be avoided. However, acetaminophen (Tylenol) is a safer treatment option. Many doctors feel comfortable prescribing Tylenol two to three times a week of 500mg. If this is still not effective, there are two prescription migraine medications that doctors use for pregnant women such as Darvocet or Fioricet.
Work with your healthcare provider on a treatment plan specific to your headaches and your pregnancy risk. Balancing the need for migraine treatment with the risks and side effects in pregnancy requires careful consideration.
Certain massage treatments and acupuncture may also be effective for relieving head pressure and migraine pain for some people.
Breastfeeding can relieve migraine pain
In good news, after giving birth, some people may find that breastfeeding your baby may actually help relieve future migraine and head pain!
Breastfeeding is known to cause hormonal changes in a woman's body, specifically an increase in the hormone prolactin. Prolactin is known to have pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory effects, which could potentially help alleviate the symptoms of migraines.
When to get help for migraine headaches and pregnancy complications
If you are pregnant and are suffering from migraines, talk to your obstetrician or pregnancy healthcare provider and find a plan that will work for you.
There are some tips and tricks that can help relieve migraine symptoms, but prevention is key. It is always better to try and find your triggers or find a remedy that works for you to prevent the migraine in the first place.
- Chop.edu. (n.d.). Migraine headaches during pregnancy. Retrieved from https://www.chop.edu/conditions-diseases/migraine-headaches-during-pregnancy#:~:text=Over half of women find, dangers for the developing fetus.
- Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain. (2019). Clinical features and pharmacotherapy of migraine in women. https://doi.org/10.1111/head.13536
- American Pregnancy Association. (n.d.). Headaches during pregnancy. Retrieved from https://americanpregnancy.org/pregnancy-health/headaches-during-pregnancy/
- Silberstein, S. D. (1998). Practice parameter: Evidence-based guidelines for migraine headache (an evidence-based review): Report of the Quality Standards Subcommittee of the American Academy of Neurology. Neurology, 50(6), 1–8. https://doi.org/10.1212/wnl.50.6.1
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This writer is a part of the FamilyEducation editorial team. Our team is comprised of parents, experts, and content professionals dedicated to bringing you the most accurate and relevant information in the parenting space.