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Am Fam Physician. 2023;108(1):97-99

This clinical content conforms to AAFP criteria for CME.

Author disclosure: No relevant financial relationships.

Key Points for Practice

• Calcium channel blockers and antihistamines are the safest migraine prophylactic medications in pregnancy.

• Acetaminophen, with or without caffeine, is the recommended treatment for acute headaches in pregnancy.

• Metoclopramide is recommended for the treatment of persistent headache, especially if associated with nausea.

From the AFP Editors

During pregnancy and after delivery, headaches can be signs of secondary disorders including preeclampsia, dural puncture, pituitary apoplexy, and infection. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) has published guidelines for the evaluation and management of headaches in pregnancy.

Primary Headaches in Pregnancy

Up to 80% of pregnant patients with primary headaches experience spontaneous reduction in frequency by the second trimester. Specific causes unique to pregnancy can trigger a headache.

Medications taken for the prevention of headache should be reviewed before pregnancy, if possible, or early in pregnancy. Some medications for the prevention of migraine increase risk in pregnancy and should not be used. Calcium channel blockers and antihistamines are safe and can be continued or started during pregnancy. Oral magnesium has some evidence of increasing the risk of neonatal death and congenital anomalies in pregnancy, despite the obstetric use of magnesium. Lifestyle modifications such as trigger avoidance, relaxation techniques, sleep hygiene, stress management, hydration, and cognitive behavior therapy have limited evidence of benefit but are safe in pregnancy. Similarly, acupuncture and biofeedback are also safe in pregnancy.

Certain medications have some evidence of risk in pregnancy, including clonidine, tricyclic antidepressants, venlafaxine, carbamazepine, lamotrigine, benzodiazepines, beta blockers, local nerve blocks, nerve stimulators, and supplements like coenzyme Q10 and riboflavin. Angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors, angiotensin receptor blockers, gabapentin, topiramate, valproate, calcitonin gene-related protein antagonist monoclonal antibodies, feverfew, melatonin, and onabotulinum toxin should be avoided during pregnancy.

Acute Primary Headache Treatment in Pregnancy


Acetaminophen, 1,000 mg up to three times per day, is recommended as initial therapy for acute migraine during pregnancy. It can be combined with caffeine, up to 200 mg per day. Products containing butalbital should be avoided because it has not shown pain improvement and increases the risk of medication overuse headache and fetal cardiac anomalies.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs should be avoided during the first and third trimesters but can safely be used in the second trimester.

Oral metoclopramide can improve nausea and headache. Consider adding diphenhydramine to counter the akathisia from metoclopramide.

Sumatriptan is recommended for secondary treatment in patients with persistent headache. A safety review by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality showed only an increased risk of hyperactivity and emotionality at three years of age. Other triptans have insufficient evidence in pregnancy.

Ergot alkaloids should be avoided in pregnancy because they stimulate uterine contractions. Opioids are not recommended because of an increased risk of medication overuse headaches and neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome.


Intractable migraine headaches are initially treated with acetaminophen and caffeine. If this is ineffective, intravenous metoclopramide, 10 mg, and diphenhydramine, 25 mg every six hours, may be administered, as needed. In the second trimester, intravenous ketorolac can be added.

Intravenous magnesium (1 to 2 g infused over 15 to 20 minutes) can be helpful in patients who have migraine with aura and is considered safe in pregnancy.

Intravenous or intramuscular dexamethasone is not recommended due to fetal exposure, but oral prednisone or methylprednisolone can be tried.

Secondary Headaches in Pregnancy

Secondary headaches are common during pregnancy. Headache with any red flags (Table 1) should be promptly evaluated because secondary etiology is found on imaging in more than 25% of cases. Magnetic resonance imaging without contrast media is the preferred imaging modality.

Rapid onset or change from baseline
Severe pain or thunderclap headache
Elevated blood pressure
Gestational age third trimester
Focal neurologic deficits
Altered consciousness
Laboratory abnormalities:
 Thrombocytopenia or thrombocytosis
 Elevated liver enzymes
 Elevated creatinine


Preeclampsia should be considered in a patient at 20 weeks or more of gestation with any headache if blood pressure is elevated. Headache in preeclampsia is commonly severe and bilateral, with blurry vision that can progress to cortical blindness if not treated. The neurologic examination is typically normal in preeclampsia.

In patients with preeclampsia and headache, other diagnoses should be considered if consciousness is altered or there is vomiting or fever. Posterior reversible encephalopathy syndrome presents in preeclampsia with headache, vomiting, altered mental status, blurred vision, and seizures caused by cerebral edema from failed cerebral vasculature autoregulation. Reversible cerebral vasoconstriction syndrome presents with sudden, fluctuating headache, transient blindness, and confusion due to diffuse segmental cerebral artery constriction. Symptoms of preeclampsia often improve rapidly after delivery, although headaches may last for several months.

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Coverage of guidelines from other organizations does not imply endorsement by AFP or the AAFP.

This series is coordinated by Michael J. Arnold, MD, associate medical editor.

A collection of Practice Guidelines published in AFP is available at

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