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Dangerous Headaches in Pregnancy: About Pre-Eclampsia

By Joanna Karpasea-Jones
 
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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

Symptoms of pre-eclampsia include:

• Hypertension (high blood pressure)
• Protein in the urine
• Swelling
• Nausea and vomiting
• Low back pain
• Abdominal pain
• Shoulder pain
• Sudden weight gain
• Very strong reflexes (called hyperreflexia)
• Headaches (often severe but can also be mild)
• Changes in vision
• Racing pulse
• Anxiety
• Shortness of breath
• Confusion

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?

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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