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Headaches are a painful fact of life for many women after having a baby. Here’s why, along with tips on what you can do to ease the throbbing:
The stats Fifty percent of women will get tension headaches—or, sometimes, full-blown migraines—within a few days of giving birth, some as late as up to eight weeks postpartum, says Merle Diamond, M.D., director of the Diamond Headache Clinic in Chicago. Hormonal fluctuations following birth, side effects from anesthesia, sleep deprivation and stress can take a toll, even if you’ve never suffered headaches before.
Tension vs. migraine Tension headaches cause moderate pain and 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.
What you can do If you’re not breastfeeding, take any medicine that worked for you pre-baby. If you’re nursing, take acetaminophen or ibuprofen for tension headaches; both are breastfeeding-safe. If you need to take migraine medication, such as Imitrex or Zomig, you’ll need to “pump and dump” your breast milk for two hours after taking your meds.
When you should do it Diamond suggests taking migraine medicine as soon as you feel the first symptom (often the aura), so the pain doesn’t disable you for the day, perhaps even longer. 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.
Prevention tips Try to catch a nap or take a break whenever possible because stress and lack of sleep can contribute to both types of headaches. But don’t let yourself snooze for more than 30 minutes: Taking a long nap might disrupt your ability to sleep later and interfere with your meal schedule—both of which can bring on the dreaded throbbing. Also, remember to drink lots of water; if you’re not well-hydrated, your blood vessels can become restricted, causing swelling and pain.
Keep the end in sight The worst headaches tend to occur during the first two months postpartum, then ease up when you get closer to six months.