Headache in Pregnancy: What's in the New ACOG Guidelines

Randy Dotinga

May 11, 2022

SAN DIEGO — If a medical professional is trying to figure out the best medical treatment for a pregnant woman with headache, it may be helpful to review data from randomized clinical trials (RCTs). Well, make that data from the RCT. There's just been one, Northwestern Medicine obstetrician-gynecologist Catherine Stika, MD, told colleagues at the annual clinical and scientific meeting of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Only a single efficacy RCT has examined headache in pregnancy, said Stika. "Overall, we have very limited data in pregnancy to tell us exactly what to do," she added.

But ob.gyns. aren't entirely in the dark, according to medical specialists who spoke at the session. Expert opinion and fetal safety data offer insight into the best treatments, as does a new ACOG clinical practice guideline on headaches during pregnancy and post partum that was coauthored by the speakers.

And there's some good news: Pregnancy itself is often a good treatment for headaches.

Pregnant women often find relief from one kind of headache — migraine — as their estradiol levels rise, said Laura Mercer, MD, an ob.gyn. at the University of Arizona, Phoenix. "About half of patients will report that migraines are getting better as early as the first trimester, and upwards of 83% will say that their migraines are better by the time they're in their third trimester," she said. "What this means for us as obstetricians is that oftentimes we can actually discontinue preventative therapies for patients during pregnancy."

But simply discontinuing every headache treatment during pregnancy may not be the right approach, Mercer said. Instead, she said, consider the benefits and risks.

Divalproex sodium (Depakote) and topiramate (Topamax) must be avoided because of fetal risk, she said. "In fact, we will prefer that people stop these medications before they discontinue their contraception if they're planning on getting pregnant," she said.

Other medications, such as ACE inhibitors and the herbal remedy feverfew, should not be used at any time during pregnancy, she said.

On the other hand, calcium channel blockers and antihistamines are alright to use in pregnancy, she said. "These two should be considered first-line because there's no known risks for them."

Beta-blockers also may be used "with some consideration to the known risks that we're familiar with when we use them for other indications," she said.

There are questions about the safety of oral magnesium in pregnancy, although it's generally considered safe, she added, and "nerve blocks and nerve stimulators seem very promising and have little known risks."

Mercer recommended gradually tapering most medications prior to conception. But it's crucial to stop higher-risk drugs immediately once pregnancy is confirmed, she said.

In regard to acute headache, Stika urged caution if a patient reports taking a headache medication more than twice a week. "All the medications we use for the treatment of migraine, both in and outside of pregnancy, carry the risk of what's called medication overuse" that can lead to rebound headaches, she said.

Excedrin Tension Headache may be used for headaches in pregnancy, she said, but not Excedrin Migraine since it includes aspirin. Triptans are not recommended as first-line therapy, she added, and they "should absolutely not be used in any pregnant patient with a history of known cardiac disease or hypertension."

Stika added that ACOG advises against the use of drugs that contain butalbital, a barbiturate that's combined with other agents to treat headache. "Butalbital is the drug that's most closely associated with getting people into this medication overuse headache," she said. "It's even worse than opioids."

Unlike multiple other countries and the entire European Union, the United States has not banned compounds that contain butalbital, she said.

In some cases, she said, patients may present to triage with vomiting, an inability to keep food down, and persistent headache despite treatment. "This is a really classic presentation."

The ACOG clinical practice guideline offers a flow chart about what to do, she said. Hydration is key, she said, and various treatment options can help. A referral to neurology may be needed in extreme cases, she said. But "most of the time, you're able to get rid of her headache."

Mercer and Stika report no disclosures.

This story originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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