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Pregnancy headaches could signal a much more serious problem

Aimee Ogden is a freelance writer, science nerd, comic book geek, and the mother of one-year-old twins. If she were a Harry Potter character, she'd be a Ravenclaw, and her patronus would be She-Hulk.

Why you shouldn't ignore that headache if you're pregnant

No pregnant woman wants to wind up as "that hysterical pregnant lady" who calls the doctor over every cramp and twinge.

But sometimes getting in touch with a medical professional is the right thing to do, as a new (albeit small-scale) study of headaches in pregnant women suggests. The research indicates that as many as one-third of pregnant women who find themselves suffering from a sudden-onset headache may actually have a more serious underlying condition going on as well.

It's important to note that the data is preliminary: It comes from just one hospital, it accounts for only 140 women, and it counts only those cases in which the patients actually had a bad enough headache to get themselves to the hospital for consultation in the first place. Follow-up research would need to look more broadly at all pregnant women, not just those at one location and not just those with a bad enough headache to report to the hospital.

More: I woke up during my C-section and lived to tell all

Many of the women in the study ended up dealing with what are called "primary headaches" — headaches that can be very nasty but which are, in the end, just headaches. Of those, most (more than 90 percent) were suffering from migraines. But of the women who did have "secondary headaches" — headaches with some kind of underlying condition to blame — over half were suffering from problems related to high blood pressure. The leading culprit behind these hypertension headaches was preeclampsia, a serious pregnancy complication that can cause liver and kidney damage and endanger the continuation of the pregnancy.

More: 10 Pregnancy symptoms you should never ignore

The good news is that there are medications and treatments to help manage preeclampsia and other blood pressure disorders during pregnancy, but for someone to get those treatments, their doctor has to know that there's something going on. And since a headache that comes on like a bolt of lightning from the clear blue sky can be one of the earliest signs of such a condition, it's something your doctor should probably hear about. The chances that something is seriously wrong probably aren't as high as this study makes it sound, but your doctor being fully informed about your health status is always a good thing. Even if it seems like "just" a headache, even if it turns out to be nothing at all, it's better to be safe than sorry when something so serious is on the line.

More: Baby aspirin might save your life during pregnancy

Other red-flag symptoms to watch out for that signal underlying problems include fever, seizures and high blood pressure readings, which you can measure with a home sphygmomanometer (say that five times fast) if you're worried and want to monitor it. And if the worst thing that happens is that you wind up wasting a lot of cellphone minutes on the line with your doctor's office, then that's not such a terrible outcome. It's certainly a lot better than worrying about it on your own. Besides, just think what kind of effect all that stress would have on your blood pressure!

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