For many moms-to-be, the last few weeks of pregnancy can be particularly stressful. While consistent contractions and your water breaking are obvious signs of labor, it's impossible not to analyze every twinge, pain, and symptom as a hint it's "go time." So, is a headache a sign of labor? While every pregnant person, and every pregnancy, is different, there are a few things every soon-to-be mom should know as she nears her due date.
To find out more about if pregnancy headaches are a sign of impending labor, and what you should do if you experience them, Romper spoke with Dr. Huma Farid, M.D., an OB-GYN at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts.
Unfortunately, as it turns out, headaches during pregnancy are a common occurrence. Per a 2013 review of research published in the Journal of Pregnancy and Child Health, 35% of pregnant people experience pregnancy headaches, which can be brought on by everything from stress to dehydration to hormone changes. It's also important to note that headaches can also be warning signs for pregnancy-related complications, like preeclampsia, hypertension, or stroke.
But according to Farid, a headache isn't a likely sign that you're about to give birth. "I do not typically consider headaches as a sign of labor," she tells Romper. But pregnancy itself is full of headache triggers. "Headaches may be a sign of dehydration, sleep deprivation or stress, or more concerning, may be the first sign of preeclampsia," Farid says. "Migraines can occur in pregnancy, but are more common when someone has a history of migraines prior to pregnancy."
This can be even more of a pain — literally — than usual, because there are not as many treatment options for headaches during pregnancy. "I advise my patients to hydrate, rest, and take acetaminophen if they experience a headache," Farid tells Romper. "If the headache is not resolving with these measures or is intensifying, or they have any blood pressure abnormalities, I advise them to come in right away to be evaluated."
Before you dismiss your late pregnancy headache as just another pregnancy pain, you should know that a sudden-onset of a severe headache in late pregnancy might be an early symptom of a preeclampsia, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). Per their Task Force on Hypertension in Pregnancy, a headache in late pregnancy might indicate that you need additional monitoring for the remainder of your pregnancy.
"Preeclampsia occurs in pregnant women after 20 weeks of gestation; women develop elevated blood pressure, headaches, visual changes, and abdominal pain. They may also develop abnormal liver or kidney function tests," Farid says. "Preeclampsia is a very serious consideration and requires management of blood pressure and symptoms, and evaluation in the hospital." Per the Preeclampsia Foundation, preeclampsia rates have increased in the U.S. to 25% in the past 20 years, and it is key cause of maternal death.
It's always a good idea to ask your doctor or midwife about a headache, even if you think it's no big deal. In a 2015 study published in the journal Neurology, one-third of pregnant women who went to the ER for a headache in the third trimester were found to have a secondary condition, with half of those being preeclampsia or pregnancy hypertension. As study author Dr. Matthew S. Robbins, M.D., told Fit Pregnancy, "We found that over one-third of the patients we evaluated had headache as a symptom of a separate underlying condition such as preeclampsia, rather than a more benign cause of headache such as migraine."
The good news? Whether your pregnancy headache is caused by hormones, sleep-deprivation, or something more serious, it will likely subside after the birth of your baby!
This post was originally published on Nov. 16, 2018. It was updated on Aug. 7, 2019.