Most headaches are not dangerous and resolve without risk to your health, but if you're pregnant, a headache may be a sign of pre-eclampsia, a potentially life threatening condition for you and your baby.
What is Pre-Eclampsia?
Pre-eclampsia is a hypertensive condition of pregnancy and the immediate post-partum period, characterized by high blood pressure and protein in the urine. Some women also experience swelling and severe headaches with changes in vision.
Pre-eclampsia occurs in up to 8 percent of pregnant women and normally starts after the 20th week of pregnancy.
If the condition is left untreated, less than one in 100 affected women will go on to develop eclampsia. They may have seizures, lose consciousness or die from associated stroke, blood clotting disorders, placental haemorrhage, liver and kidney or respiratory problems.
The unborn baby is also at risk of dying from placental failure and lack of oxygen and nutrients. Globally, eclampsia is thought to cause 76,000 maternal deaths and 500,000 infant deaths every year.
Symptoms of pre-eclampsia include:
Hypertension (high blood pressure)
Protein in the urine
Nausea and vomiting
Low back pain
Sudden weight gain
Very strong reflexes (called hyperreflexia)
Headaches (often severe but can also be mild)
Changes in vision
Shortness of breath
Sometimes, women will have pre-eclampsia with no symptoms. If you have any of the listed symptoms you should seek a doctor's advice, particularly if you have any changes in vision, as this may indicate swelling of the brain.
How Do I know if a Headache is Serious?
If you develop headaches that won't go away, you should seek medical help, even if they are mild. Pre-eclampsia headaches are usually described as throbbing in nature and like a migraine.
If pain medication or relaxation doesn't help to sooth it and it persists, or you have light sensitivity or see flashing lights or colors or your vision goes blurry, you should go to the hospital straight away.
What Causes Pre-Eclampsia?
It is not known what causes pre-eclampsia, but placental malfunction is thought to play a part. Other theories include immune system problems (where the immune system attacks the developing baby), air pollution from traffic, inflammation (women with pre-existing medical conditions have a greater risk of developing pre-eclampsia) and dietary deficiencies.
Supplementation with L-arginine amino acids and antioxidant vitamins may reduce the risk of getting pre-eclampsia, as may taking a pregnancy multi-vitamin.
A study into a community of vegans who lived on natural wholefoods and no animal products or fast foods found that they had only one case of pre-eclampsia out of 775 pregnant women.
This may have been because fast food and saturated fat consumption and obesity are associated with pre-eclampsia, so having a healthy diet reduced the risk. The authors concluded that a vegan diet could alleviate most, if not all, cases of pre-eclampsia.
If you are diagnosed with pre-eclampsia you may be admitted to hospital to have regular blood pressure, liver and kidney checks and urine tests. Your baby's heart rate will be monitored and you may be offered an ultrasound scan to check placental function.
If your baby is of viable age or your condition is serious, your labor will be induced or you will be booked for a caesarean. The only cure for pre-eclampsia is delivery of the baby.