Benign and Serious Causes of Headaches After Pregnancy

Thorough evaluation is needed for diagnosis

Mother Holding Newborn
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After the emotional and physical exhaustion of delivering a baby, the last thing you need is a headache. But a headache in the postpartum period is a common complaint. Hormonal changes, dehydration, anesthesia, and sleep irregularity can all contribute to headache after delivery of your precious newborn.

Usually, fluid, rest, relaxation, and an anti-inflammatory—like ibuprofen—alleviates the discomfort.

But sometimes headaches in postpartum women last longer than 24 hours, are more severe than usual, and/or are not relieved by typical measures.

When this happens, you should contact your healthcare provider, as this could signal a medical condition specific to the postpartum period (which can rarely be life-threatening).

Causes of Postpartum Headache

In a study in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, researchers from the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine reviewed the outcomes of 95 women with postpartum headache. These women had no prior history of seizures or strokes. In the study, the postpartum period was described as occurring 24 hours from the time of delivery to within 42 days after delivery (so a pretty long time out).

The study found that nearly 50 percent of the women's postpartum headaches were either migraines or tension-type headaches. Twenty-four percent were caused by preeclampsia/eclampsia, and 16 percent were spinal headaches.

The other 10 percent of the patients had more serious brain abnormalities, including bleeding into the brain and stroke.

Serious Headaches

Examples of rare but dangerous headaches that require immediate medical attention include:

To rule out these potentially life threatening headache causes, imaging of the brain with a CT scan or MRI is required.

lumbar puncture is also sometimes needed. 

While your doctor may order a brain imaging test to be on the safe side, this is generally reserved for women who have worrisome signs or symptoms along with their headache. For instance, a neurological problem like difficulty walking, weakness, or numbness and tingling is worrisome for a blood clot or bleed in the brain. 

Another headache warning sign is if a woman is having the worst headache of her life or is experiencing a thunderclap headache. 

Preeclampsia/Eclampsia: Another Serious Headache

To rule out preeclampsia, your doctor will check your blood pressure and perform a urinalysis. If you have high blood pressure and protein in your urine, your doctor will likely give you medication to bring your blood pressure down and/or medication to prevent seizures, called magnesium sulfate. If your symptoms don't resolve with the above treatment, brain imaging may be recommended.


After ruling out potentially life-threatening and serious causes of a postpartum headache, the diagnosis of your headache at this point is probably a migraine or tension-type headache. Pain medication, fluids, and sleep will be recommended.

If you underwent an epidural for anesthesia during delivery, you may be suffering from a post-lumbar puncture headache (spinal headache).

In this case, intravenous (through the vein) fluids, caffeine, or even a blood patch can be helpful. A blood patch entails a surgery, in which your own blood is injected into the puncture site where your epidural was done. This compresses the hole, preventing any further spinal fluid leak.

A Word from Verywell

If you experience a postpartum headache, contact your doctor, or page your nurse if you are still in the hospital. There's likely a simple solution, such as sleep, fluids, or a pain medication. However, your doctor will want to make sure there is nothing more serious going on. As a parent, you also want that reassurance so you can obtain appropriate headache relief and get back to enjoying your newborn.


Klein AM, Loder E. Postpartum headacheInt J Obstet Anesth. 2010 Oct;19(4):422-30. 

Stella, C.L., Jodicke, C.D., How, H.Y., Harkness, U.F.,& Sibai BM. (2007). Postpartum headache: is your work-up complete? American J ournal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, 196(4):318.e1-7.