Asger Hee Stjernholm, MSc

Managing Migraine Safely During Pregnancy

Pregnancy is a time of significant change in the body (to say the least!).

And whilst you’re worrying about maintaining a healthy blood pressure, eating the right foods, getting plenty of rest and enough gentle exercise, you really don’t want to have to be worrying about migraines, too.

The good news is: 50-80% of female migraine patients see a drop in the frequency of migraine attacks during pregnancy.

However that’s not to say their migraines will go away entirely. Plus, there’s the other 20-30% who’ll see their migraine attacks stay the same, or even get marginally worse.

If you’re concerned about experiencing migraine during pregnancy, try not to worry. As with migraines at other times in life, there are a number of safe ways to treat pregnancy migraines, including medication-free treatments, as well as common triggers to avoid.

Of course, the first step to combating pregnancy migraines is knowing a little more about them. So let’s start there…

What is a pregnancy migraine?

If you suffer from migraines, there’s a good chance you will continue to experience them throughout your pregnancy. However, you may find them less painful or less frequent than before.

While pregnant, your body will undergo a number of hormonal changes, such as dramatic boosts in estrogen, and a drop in progesterone.

For many women, low levels of estrogen can trigger a migraine attack. So it is this rise in estrogen — produced to enable the uterus and placenta to transfer nutrients to the foetus — which is to thank for some women’s migraines becoming easier to manage while they are carrying.

But this break won’t last too long. As hormone levels balance back out postpartum, migraines may return to their pre-pregnancy state — especially in the first few months when prolactin levels rise.

This alleviation may also be due to the production of endorphins — natural pain-killing hormones — in the body. As your body prepares to give birth, the endorphins created may also lend a hand in making migraines feel less severe than when you were not pregnant.

What’s more, the majority of pregnant women steer clear of alcohol and consciously eat more healthily whilst they are carrying. These lifestyle changes reduce the risk of these common migraine triggers causing problems.

But how likely are you to have pregnancy migraines?

According to The Migraine Trust, you’re more likely to continue having migraines throughout pregnancy if you suffer from migraine with aura. What’s more, if you experience a migraine attack for the first time whilst pregnant, it is more likely to bring aura symptoms.

If, on the other hand, you tend to suffer migraine without aura, you have more chance of seeing your condition drop off during pregnancy — this is especially true if your migraines have been in sync with your menstrual cycle.

We keep talking about ‘symptoms’ of pregnancy migraine, but what are they? Are they any different to migraine at other times of your life?

What are the symptoms of pregnancy migraine?

You will know when a pregnancy migraine is coming, because it will feel very similar to other migraines you’ve experienced in the past.

If you have been diagnosed as having migraine with aura, you can expect some or all of the following pre-headache symptoms:

  • Visual disturbances, including blind spots, colored dots, zigzags, blurred vision, and potential partial or even total vision loss
  • Sensorial discomfort, such as temporary numbness in the limbs
  • Difficulty speaking, including slurred speech
  • Some sensations of dizziness or vertigo

These, of course, tend to be followed by a pounding headache. There’s also the possibility of feeling some nausea and sensitivity to light and sound.

If your migraines more often arise without any aura symptoms, then your pregnancy migraines will likely follow suit. For you, head pain, nausea and increased sensitivity will be your key symptoms. But you may, on occasion, also experience some light-headedness.

Regardless of whether you suffer migraine with or without aura during pregnancy, dizziness will not be a welcome sensation. To avoid the risk of fainting or falling, make sure you sit down and get rest as soon as your migraine symptoms start to appear.

Some women may be extra concerned about migraine symptoms during pregnancy because of two conditions called pre-eclampsia and eclampsia. Caused by dangerously high blood pressure, pre-eclampsia and eclampsia can both cause headaches, dizziness and nausea (common migraine symptoms). If your headaches are accompanied by swelling of the arms or face, abdominal pain, blood in your vomit or urine, then seek medical attention immediately. These are not common symptoms of migraine and deserve expert treatment.

Will a migraine be harmful for my baby?

In short: no. No matter what type of migraine you suffer from, it will not have a direct negative impact on your baby. The only time a headache may become harmful for your child is if it is indicative of another illness. Contact your doctor if:

  • Your headache persists for more than a few hours, or returns frequently
  • You develop a fever
  • Or if you experience any of the symptoms of pre-eclampsia and eclampsia as listed above

Of course, whilst a migraine may not put your child at any risk, it’s still uncomfortable and disruptive for you to live with. Luckily, there are a number of ways to safely treat migraines during pregnancy…

How to find relief from pregnancy migraine

There are several options available to you when treating pregnancy migraines. Which you choose will depend on your individual wants and needs:

Migraine medication

Generally speaking, pain relief and other medications should be avoided whilst carrying. Paracetamol during pregnancy has recently been linked to behavioral issues, like AD-HD, as well as developmental limitations in children.

Non-medical alternatives, such as magnesium, have been known to reduce migraine pain. Magnesium, consumed in pill form for instance, is totally safe to use during pregnancy and can relax muscles, reduce inflammation and soothe the nervous system — bringing much needed relief when a migraine attack strikes.

Lifestyle changes

You may be pleased to hear that small changes to your daily routine can help control migraine during pregnancy.

  1. Try to eat well and stay hydrated — you can add electrolytes to your water, if you struggle to drink enough throughout the day. Most women will avoid alcohol whilst carrying anyway, but if you suffer from pregnancy migraines there’s even more incentive to skip potentially-triggering alcoholic drinks.
  2. Make sure you get enough sleep and follow as close a sleeping routine as you can (of course, this can be tricky if you’re already a mom of young children!).
  3. Enjoy some light, relaxing exercise, such as yoga and breathing practices. Of course, there are some yoga poses which aren’t suitable for pregnancy, and some which would not be appropriate later in your term, so always go to a qualified yoga teacher and let them know how far along you are.
  4. Learn to recognize and avoid your migraine triggers. Consider keeping a migraine diary to track the patterns which emerge. Perhaps you’re sensitive to certain foods, or smells, or stressors?

Indeed, the first defense is always information. Don’t be afraid to reach out your doctor for medical assistance during your pregnancy, and have a good read of all the migraine resources on our blog. Happy pregnancy!

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