Women's Healthcare Topics

Is it Normal to have Headaches and Shortness of Breath?

Reviewed by James Brann, M.D.

Is it Normal to have Headaches in Pregnancy?

The vast majority of pregnancy related headaches occur in the third trimester, though there are some women who experience them in earlier stages of pregnancy.

There is a hormonal component to headaches, particularly to headaches which occur in early pregnancy, but most pregnancy headaches at this stage are related to the physical stress put on the body by extra weight, changes in posture to accommodate that weight, sleep problems, low blood sugar, dehydration, and high blood pressure.

What can I do about headaches?

  • Watch your body positioning - proper posture is helpful in avoiding headaches

  • Adequate rest - if you're not getting your fair share at night, be sure to rest during the day

  • Exercise will keep your weight and blood pressure under control

  • Healthy food choices - eat a balanced diet; avoid foods which are high in salt or preservatives

  • Avoid stress - when possible

  • Eat a healthy snack (to get blood sugar back to normal)

  • Apply a warm compress on your eyes and nose (for sinus pain)

  • Apply a cold compress to the back of your neck

  • Drink water to re-hydrate yourself

  • You may use acetaminophen.

When you feel a headache coming on the best thing you can do is find a cool, quite dark room and fall asleep. You'll wake up refreshed and pain free.

Sometimes, the best thing you can do for yourself when you've got a headache is excuse yourself from the hustle and bustle of life. Take a time out. Grab a glass of water. Turn on the answering machine. Listen to soothing music. Change into comfortable clothing. Put your feet up. Relax. If you fall asleep, you must really need it. If you don't, you're giving your body some well-deserved down time.

Is it Normal to have Shortness of Breath in Pregnancy?

Shortness of breath is a very difficult side effect of pregnancy which takes many first timers by surprise. It's not that it's any easier to breathe the second time around; it's just that you understand what is happening.

The toughest part of this ailment is that it's scary. You worry that you won't catch your breath, that you (and baby) aren't getting enough oxygen. The physical sensation of breathlessness can cause anxiety which then exacerbates the problem. Take it from me, you will catch your breath...just not as quickly as you'd like.

One thing that helps: stretch out on your left side. This increases blood flow to the brain and quickly alleviates SOB, or shortness of breath.

So why do pregnant women experience shortness of breath?
A third trimester mom's uterus is now large enough to push up on her digestive organs and her diaphragm. Where do they get pushed? Upward toward the lungs. The lungs may not fill up as much as they used to when breathing, creating a feeling of breathlessness. Hopefully, the breathlessness comes and goes as baby changes position. In most cases, mom is able to catch her breath again full time for the last month of weeks of pregnancy, when baby's head moves toward or into the birth canal.

Physically, the uterus compresses the venous return of blood from the legs, cutting off blood supply to the heart and lungs. This decreases the oxygen in the blood and gives you the sensation of a rapid heart beat and SOB.

When you take the uterus weight off the large veins (vena cava ) of the legs, the circulation increases and you immediately feel better. Simply sit down. Then, lean to your left side a bit to shift the uterus and allow for the free flow of blood from the legs.

In some cases, very long or large babies will exert pressure on the lungs earlier or longer. Maybe future NBA or WNBA players are preparing mom for breathless moments in the stands.

If you're feeling breathless, there are some things you can try to do to help alleviate the sensation.

If you can't catch your breath

  • Do not panic

  • Straighten up your shoulders and back, giving your lungs some "breathing room"

  • Slow down whatever physical activity you are engaging in; take some pressure off your respiratory system

  • Prop yourself up when sleeping and never sleep on your back.

  • Always sleep on one side or the other. The left side is best.

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