All About Postpartum Headaches

After having a baby, many women experience painful, irritating postpartum headaches. Here's what causes them, with tips on what you can do to ease the throbbing.

Fifty percent of women will get tension headaches—or, sometimes, full-blown migraines—within a few days of giving birth. These postpartum headaches can come as late as eight weeks after delivery, says Merle Diamond, M.D., director of the Diamond Headache Clinic in Chicago. Learn about the causes, symptoms, and ways to ease the pain.

Causes of Postpartum Headaches

You've never suffered from headaches before, but now you have an occasional or constant headache postpartum. What gives? Hormonal fluctuations following birth, side effects from anesthesia, sleep deprivation, and stress usually combine to create the perfect storm. The worst postpartum headaches tend to occur during the first two months postpartum, then ease up when you get closer to six months.

Types of Postpartum Headaches

Postpartum headaches usually fall into two categories: tension and migraine.

  • Tension headaches cause moderate discomfort, and they often feel like a rubber band around your head. The pain usually starts in your neck and moves through your entire head.
  • Migraines cause intense pain on one or both sides of the head, nausea, and sensitivity to light. They may be preceded by an aura, such as flashing lights, blind spots, or numbness throughout your body.

Postpartum Headache Treatment

Whether you experience occasional or daily headaches postpartum, there's a solution to ease the pain. Formula-feeding mothers can take any medicine that worked before pregnancy. But postpartum headaches while breastfeeding need a little extra caution, since some medications might not be safe for nursing babies. Acetaminophen or ibuprofen are likely fine for tension headaches, while Imitrex or Zomig may work for migraines. Always ask your doctor before taking medicine when breastfeeding, though—you may need to "pump and dump" your breast milk for two hours after taking your meds.

Diamond suggests taking migraine medicine as soon as you feel the first symptoms (often the aura), so the pain doesn't disable you for long periods of time. There's usually no warning before a tension headache arrives, so take medication as soon as you feel the pain. Also consider having a cup of joe; Diamond says caffeine can help with tension headaches and migraine pain.

Postpartum Headache Prevention

Not looking forward to your postpartum headaches everyday? To prevent another round of throbbing, follow these tips.

  • Catch a nap, but don't let yourself snooze for more than 30 minutes. Taking a long nap might disrupt your ability to sleep later, and it could interfere with meal schedules—both of these situations can be headache triggers.
  • Take a break whenever possible, since stress can contribute to both types of headaches
  • Drink lots of water. If you're not well-hydrated, your blood vessels can become restricted, causing swelling and pain.
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