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 as a first 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.
According to experts, a headache could be a sign of impending labor, or a reason to be somewhat concerns. As What to Expect notes, headaches during pregnancy can be caused by increased sinus pressure, or the endless roller coaster of hormones surging through your body. In fact, according to Healthline, many women who suffered from hormonal migraines before their pregnancy will actually experience some relief during their pregnancy, as estrogen levels rise throughout your pregnancy.
As OB-GYN Henry Klapholz of Tufts University School of Medicine explains to Parents, these hormone levels fluctuate right before delivery, giving some moms-to-be what feels like the worst case of PMS ever, including a raging headache. While headaches can be a totally normal sign of labor, though, they might also indicate a dangerous pregnancy complication — preeclampsia. The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG) advises pregnant people to call their doctor or midwife right away if they have a bad headache that won't go away during their pregnancy, or is accompanied by other symptoms like high blood pressure, swelling, sudden weight gain, or vision changes.
According to What to Expect, headaches are a common symptom of pregnancy. That's because pregnancy is chock full of headache triggers, like stress, exhaustion, hormone changes, sinus congestion, caffeine withdrawal, and dehydration. This can be even more of a pain — literally — than usual, because there are not as many treatment options for headaches during pregnancy.
The same site explains that one major culprit behind pregnancy headaches is hormones. Healthline adds that increased estrogen during pregnancy might actually help your headaches if you previously suffered from hormonal migraines. So, towards the end of pregnancy a migraine may be a sign that labor is beginning.
As Dr. Klapholz told Parents, "Labor causes a shift in your estrogen and progesterone levels, which is akin to a major case of PMS." As labor approaches and these hormones fluctuate, your headaches may return with a vengeance, and signal that your baby is on her way.
Before you dismiss your late pregnancy headache as just another sign of labor, you should know that a severe headache in late pregnancy might be a symptom of a preeclampsia, according to ACOG. They advise pregnant people to call their obstetric provider right away if they have a headache that won't go away, or is accompanied by other symptoms like swelling, vision changes, nausea, difficulty breathing, or abdominal or shoulder pain. According to the Preeclampsia Foundation, preeclampsia rates have increased in the U.S. to 25 percent in the past 20 years, and it is key cause of maternal death.
It never hurts 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 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, pre-labor, or something more sinister, it will likely subside with the birth of your baby. If it doesn't, at least you can finally take something more effective than acetaminophen for your headache pain.