Migraine in women before, during, and after pregnancy

Hormone changes during a woman’s lifespan can influence the severity and frequency of migraine, explained experts at AANAM. They highlighted changes in migraine during pregnancy and postpartum, the varying safety profiles of migraine therapies with different mechanisms of action during pregnancy and lactation, and the red flag clinical features of a secondary headache during pregnancy.

"Migraine is the most common type of primary headache in women requiring medical attention",1 said Professor Jelena Pavlovic, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, NY.

When deciding upon treatment, consider the possibility of a planned or unplanned pregnancy

Men also experience migraine, but overall migraine is more common in women and women have higher rates of most migraine symptoms, greater associated impairment, and higher healthcare resource utilization.1

"Deciding upon which of the many established and new acute and preventive therapies with differing mechanisms of action and differing efficacy and safety profiles to use for each patient can be difficult, especially if there is a possibility of a planned or unplanned pregnancy", said Professor Melissa Lynn Rayhill, University at Buffalo, NY.

In providing guidance on the use of new therapies the American Headache Society states that “the integration of new treatments into clinical practice should be informed by the potential for benefit relative to established therapies, as well as by the characteristics and preferences of individual patients”.2

Severity and frequency of migraine may reflect hormone changes during a woman’s lifespan3


Migraine during pregnancy and postpartum

Changes in hormone levels during a woman’s lifespan can lead to a worsening or improvement in migraine3 (see Estrogen and the patient journey for women with migraine).

"Migraine improves in two-thirds of women during pregnancy, usually after the first trimester", said Professor Rayhill. Postpartum, one-third experience headache, which is more common among those with a previous history of migraine and may be aggravated by postpartum-related decreasing estrogen levels.4

Migraine often improves during pregnancy4

"Safety data to inform the use of migraine therapies during pregnancy and lactation are limited", noted Professor Rayhill, "and further research is needed to inform therapeutic decision making".5 Meanwhile, a narrative review article that classifies migraine therapies into first- second- and third-line options, and “avoid when possible” and “always avoid” categories based on available pregnancy safety information6 provides useful guidance.


Migraine vs secondary headache during pregnancy and postpartum

The risk of secondary headache during pregnancy due to pre-eclampsia, stroke, or postpartum angiopathy, is increased in women with a history of migraine

Professor Rayhill highlighted that the incidence of secondary headache increases in pregnancy after 20 weeks’ gestation.7 Headaches occurring in pregnant women who do not have a history of headache or who have elevated blood pressure, respectively, are associated with a 5-fold and 17-fold increased risk of secondary headache.7

Red flag clinical features of secondary headache during pregnancy include a thunderclap headache, fever, hypertension, and neurologic abnormalities. Causes include pre-eclampsia, stroke, and postpartum angiopathy, which are all increased in patients with a history of migraine.7-8


AANAM : American Academy of Neurology Annual Meeting
NY : New York

BE-NOTPR-0319 approval date 07/2023


Our correspondent’s highlights from the symposium are meant as a fair representation of the scientific content presented. The views and opinions expressed on this page do not necessarily reflect those of Lundbeck.

  1. Buse DC, Loder EW, Gorman JA, et al. Sex differences in the prevalence, symptoms, and associated features of migraine, probable migraine and other severe headache: results of the American Migraine Prevalence and Prevention (AMPP) Study. Headache. 2013;53(8):1278–1299. doi:10.1111/head.12150.
  2. Ailani J, Burch RC, Robbins MS; Board of Directors of the American Headache Society. The American Headache Society Consensus Statement: Update on integrating new migraine treatments into clinical practice. Headache. 2021;61(7):1021–1039. doi:10.1111/head.14153.
  3. Sacco S, Ricci S, Degan D, Carolei A. Migraine in women: the role of hormones and their impact on vascular diseases. J Headache Pain. 2012;13(3):177–189. doi:10.1007/s10194-012-0424-y.
  4. Sances G, Granella F, Nappi RE, et al. Course of migraine during pregnancy and postpartum: a prospective study. Cephalalgia. 2003;23(3):197–205. doi:10.1046/j.1468-2982.2003.00480.x
  5. Saldanha IJ, Cao W, Bhuma MR, et al. Management of primary headaches during pregnancy, postpartum, and breastfeeding: A systematic review. Headache. 2021;61(1):11–43. doi:10.1111/head.14041.
  6. Burch R. Epidemiology and treatment of menstrual migraine and migraine during pregnancy and lactation: A narrative review. Headache. 2020;60(1):200–216. doi:10.1111/head.13665.
  7. Robbins MS, Farmakidis C, Dayal AK, Lipton RB. Acute headache diagnosis in pregnant women: a hospital-based study. Neurology. 2015;85(12):1024–1030. doi:10.1212/WNL.0000000000001954.
  8. Sandoe CH, Lay C. Secondary headaches during pregnancy: When to Worry. Curr Neurol Neurosci Rep. 2019;19(6):27. doi:10.1007/s11910-019-0944-9.
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