Could My Headache Be related To Gestational Diabetes?

Pregnancy causes all kinds of changes in a woman's body, some leading to symptoms that are less than pleasant. Headaches are a common complaint among pregnant women, resulting from a variety of causes. Migraines, exhaustion, and stress are common culprits, but in some cases, headaches can be a symptom of a potentially serious condition called gestational diabetes.

If left untreated, gestational diabetes can be very dangerous for the mother and her developing baby, but with careful monitoring and management, a woman with gestational diabetes can have a healthy pregnancy. Properly controlled gestational diabetes can lessen the number of headaches endured throughout pregnancy.

Let's look at how headaches are related to gestational diabetes and what you can do to find relief.

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What is gestational diabetes?

Gestational diabetes is a condition that affects up to 10%¹ of pregnant women in the US each year. It is often diagnosed during the second or third trimester in women who didn't have diabetes before becoming pregnant. Gestational diabetes usually resolves after the baby is born and a woman's blood sugar levels return to normal.

Without proper treatment, gestational diabetes can cause severe headaches, and it can be dangerous for your unborn baby's health as well as your own.

During pregnancy, a woman's body creates extra hormones to support the development of a baby. Although scientists don't know exactly why, sometimes a woman's placenta makes hormones that cause problems with insulin production, and her body is unable to use that insulin effectively. When this happens, sugar can't enter cells to be converted into energy.

This leads to insulin resistance, and if left untreated, it can cause severe headaches.

Gestational diabetes can also cause glucose to build up in your bloodstream, leading to hyperglycemia or high blood sugar. Without treatment, gestational diabetes can lead to all kinds of health problems for you and your unborn baby, such as:

  • Large babies at birth, weighing over 9 pounds

  • An increased risk of C-section

  • Preterm birth

  • High blood pressure or preeclampsia in the third trimester

  • Low blood sugar

  • Baby with hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) at birth

  • Stillbirth 

  • Increased chance of type 2 diabetes later in life for mother and baby

  • Increased chance of obesity for the baby later in life

Women who develop gestational diabetes usually recover after their baby is born, but close monitoring is important to make sure their glucose levels return to normal.

If you have gestational diabetes, after your baby is born, you need to have your glucose checked by your doctor several times over three years. This will ensure that your glucose levels have returned to normal and that you no longer have diabetes.

Although the exact cause is unknown, some risk factors make it more likely that you'll develop gestational diabetes during pregnancy. They include:

  • A family history of diabetes

  • A history of high blood sugar, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol

  • Being overweight

  • Lack of exercise

  • Having previously delivered a large baby

  • Being pregnant with multiple babies

  • Having polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)

If you are diagnosed with gestational diabetes, your doctor can help you get the best treatment to make sure you and your baby remain healthy throughout your pregnancy.

Does gestational diabetes cause headaches?

Gestational diabetes often presents with very few symptoms. In fact, most women don't even know they've got it until they have a blood sugar test in their second trimester.

If your blood sugar isn't stable and you've got gestational diabetes, you may notice the following symptoms (although it is common not to experience any):

  • Excessive thirst

  • Frequent trips to the bathroom, especially overnight

  • Exhaustion

  • Excessive weight gain (or loss)

  • Thrush or itchy skin

  • Blurred vision

Headaches are another symptom caused by gestational diabetes, as your blood sugar fluctuates. Many things can cause your blood sugar levels to go up and down dramatically, including eating foods that are high in carbohydrates and not eating frequently enough. When this happens, your blood sugar levels spike, which is known as hyperglycemia. Other causes of hyperglycemia include stress, lack of sleep, and lack of physical exercise.

Can a severe headache be a sign of diabetes?

Although a headache can be a symptom of high blood sugar levels or hyperglycemia, it can also be the result of many other pregnancy-related issues. Headaches are very common during pregnancy, especially for women who are prone to migraines.

Frequent headaches during pregnancy can also be a sign that your blood pressure is too high. High blood pressure during pregnancy is referred to as preeclampsia, and it can be very serious if left untreated.

Other causes of headaches during pregnancy include:

  • Sleep deprivation

  • Lack of caffeine

  • Stress

  • Dehydration

  • Low blood sugar

  • Migraines

  • Preeclampsia (in the third trimester)

Since headaches can be a sign of many issues, ranging from mild to serious, it's important to let your doctor know so they can determine the underlying cause.

If you experience a severe headache during pregnancy, it may signify that your brain isn't getting enough insulin, and your body has become insulin-resistant. If that's the case, you may be diagnosed with gestational diabetes, and your doctor will determine the best way to ensure that your body gets enough insulin.

Gestational diabetes headaches can be very painful and can cause throbbing pain in your temples. If you experience this symptom during pregnancy, call your doctor right away.

How is a gestational diabetes headache treated?

To quickly treat the pain of a gestational diabetes headache, doctors generally recommend taking acetaminophen since it's a safe medication for mother and baby.

To treat your condition and lessen the frequency of headaches, your doctor is likely to suggest further testing to make an accurate diagnosis. If you've had frequent headaches during your pregnancy, or if you've got several risk factors, your doctor may ask you to take an oral glucose tolerance test² (OGTT) to determine whether you have gestational diabetes.

This test is typically performed between 24 and 28 weeks of pregnancy, but if you have multiple risk factors or you've had gestational diabetes in a previous pregnancy, your doctor may order it sooner. They may also ask you to take an OGTT if you're exhibiting symptoms of gestational diabetes.

If your doctor asks you to take an OGTT:

  1. You'll be asked to fast during the night and morning before taking the OGTT.

  2. A nurse will draw blood when you arrive.

  3. You'll drink the glucose liquid that's provided (it's usually fruit-flavored and very sweet).

  4. You'll wait for two hours in the office, without eating or drinking anything.

  5. One hour after drinking the glucose drink,  a nurse will draw blood.

  6. Another hour later, the nurse will draw blood again.

Once you've had your blood drawn the last time, you are free to eat a snack and leave. Your doctor will call you when the test results come in. If your test results indicate that you've got gestational diabetes, your doctor will determine the best course of treatment.

Gestational diabetes treatment for headaches

If you're diagnosed with gestational diabetes, you can manage your condition in the following four ways:

  • Eat a well-balanced diet that's high in protein and low in carbohydrates

  • Exercise daily for at least 30 minutes

  • Manage weight gain throughout your pregnancy the best you can

  • Take medication as prescribed by your doctor to control your gestational diabetes

To manage your gestational diabetes and prevent severe headaches during pregnancy, you must check your glucose levels several times a day. Women are usually advised to have a glucose level below 5.3 before breakfast and below 7.9 one hour after each meal.

It will take practice, but you'll soon learn how to control your glucose levels, so they don't fluctuate outside of the normal levels. If you're able to keep your glucose levels within normal limits, you shouldn't suffer from gestational diabetes headaches as frequently, and they may disappear completely.

How long does a diabetes headache last?

Unfortunately, a gestational diabetes headache can last from a few hours to several days. A gestational diabetes headache is your body’s warning sign that something is wrong. Typically, this means your glucose levels are too high or too low.

Once you begin to monitor your glucose levels and you learn to control them with diet, exercise, and insulin, you'll notice that your headaches occur less frequently.

If you have a headache and you've been diagnosed with gestational diabetes, check your glucose levels immediately. This will help you to determine what your body needs, so you can treat it and find relief from your headache.

When should I see a doctor?

Headaches aren't always a warning sign that your body isn't well, but they should always be taken seriously — especially during pregnancy. If you're having frequent headaches, let your doctor know at your next scheduled prenatal appointment. They will listen to your concerns and ask about other symptoms that may point to gestational diabetes or other pregnancy-related issues. 

If you're experiencing severe headaches during pregnancy, it's okay to ask to be seen before your next scheduled visit. Gestational diabetes can be serious if it's left untreated, and it's always better to err on the side of caution during pregnancy.

Call your doctor right away if you have a severe headache that doesn't respond to acetaminophen, and if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • Blurred vision

  • Excessive thirst

  • Exhaustion

  • Frequent trips to the bathroom

It's also important to let your doctor know if you've got a family history of diabetes and if you have any risk factors such as a history of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or high blood sugar, or if you've had gestational diabetes in a previous pregnancy. Additionally, call your doctor if you experience headaches and you have PCOS, or are pregnant with multiple babies. 

Your doctor and nurses are available to answer questions and listen to your concerns, and they're dedicated to making sure your pregnancy is healthy from start to finish.

If you're worried about severe headaches during pregnancy and you've got any symptoms or risk factors that make you concerned about gestational diabetes, give your doctor a call right away. They'll determine whether further testing is needed. Until then, acetaminophen can help ease the pain.

The lowdown

Gestational diabetes is a condition that causes pregnant women to become insulin-resistant during pregnancy. These women didn't previously have diabetes, and the condition often resolves itself after childbirth. Gestational diabetes can lead to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes for the mother and baby along with a higher risk of the baby becoming obese later in life.

Gestational diabetes headaches can be very painful, and they can indicate that your blood sugar is too high or too low. To combat headaches, if you have gestational diabetes, you need to monitor your glucose levels several times a day. Once you're able to keep your glucose levels within normal limits, your headaches will become less frequent.

Until then, acetaminophen can help with severe headaches caused by gestational diabetes.

There are many reasons a woman can suffer from headaches during pregnancy, and some of them can be quite serious. If you are pregnant and you suffer from headaches, tell your doctor so they can determine whether further testing needs to be done to get to the root cause.

  1. Gestational diabetes | Center for Disease Control and Prevention

  2. Testing for gestational diabetes | Tommy'

Other sources:

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