Healthy Choices

Health bites: When a headache during pregnancy is cause for alarm

Every two weeks, we gather some of the most interesting, intriguing and even oddball studies from health researchers around the world. Here are the latest:

Headaches during pregnancy are common, but when is a pregnant woman’s headache a cause for concern? According to a new study, women should look out for two red flags: high blood pressure and no history of headaches. If a pregnant woman with those two factors suddenly develops a headache that quickly gets worse, she could be at risk for pregnancy complications, including pre-eclampsia, putting both the mother and baby at risk.

“It is not always easy to distinguish between a recurring, pre-existing migraine condition and a headache caused by a pregnancy complication,” said study lead author Dr. Matthew S. Robbins in a news release. He’s the chief of neurology at the Jack D. Weiler Hospital of the Montefiore Health System and associate professor of clinical neurology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.

He said research indicates that women with high blood pressure and no previous headache history should be “referred immediately” for neuroimaging and monitoring for pre-eclampsia. Also known as toxemia, pre-eclampsia usually occurs in the second or third trimester of pregnancy.

Pregnant women with high blood pressure were 17 times more likely to have an underlying cause for their headache, such as pre-eclampsia, compared with those without elevated blood pressure. Those with no history of headaches were five times more likely to have an underlying cause.

The study, said to be the largest of its kind, is designed to offer clinical recommendations for making diagnostic decisions about headaches in pregnant women. Robbins and a team of researchers jointly conducted the study, analyzing the records of 140 women, average age 29, who were treated for pregnancy headaches in a five-year period. The study results were recently published in the journal Neurology.

Predicting suicide? Doctors test new tools

Using blood tests and questionnaires, researchers at the Indiana University School of Medicine say they can predict with more than 90 percent accuracy which psychiatric patients will begin thinking of suicide, or attempt it.

The idea is that with better tools to predict which patients will consider suicide, physicians can intervene earlier to prevent such tragedies among those with bipolar disorder or other psychiatric illnesses.

The university’s researchers combined biomarkers from blood samples and questionnaires on tablet-based apps that they said predicted with 92 percent accuracy which patients would begin having suicidal thoughts. For those with bipolar disorder, the accuracy rate was 98 percent.

The study involved a group of 217 male psychiatric patients with diagnoses of bipolar disorder, major depression and schizophrenia, who were followed for several years.

The study results follow 2013 research by Indiana University that identified elevated biomarkers in blood samples from bipolar disorder patients who had suicidal thoughts or were hospitalized as a result of suicide attempts. Indiana University has focused its research on biological signs of suicide risk largely because of the brain’s inaccessibility and the inability of many patients to disclose their thoughts.

The apps, which were recently developed, assess mood and anxiety, as well as ask questions related to physical and mental health, addictions, cultural factors and environmental stress. They do not ask whether the individual is thinking of committing suicide.

Low birth weight could be inherited

A new UC Irvine study says a woman’s birth weight, education level and pre-pregnancy marital status could determine her daughter and granddaughter’s own birth weights.

The odds of having a low-birth-weight baby were up to twice as likely for women who were themselves small babies, according to the study. But other factors – including the mother’s education level and her marital status – also were factors that persisted across several generations, according to the study.

The study’s author, UCI assistant professor of sociology Jennifer B. Kane, looked at data from 1,580 mother-daughter pairs, focusing on their birth weight, marital status and education level.

Kane said in an email that each additional year of a mother’s schooling is associated with an increase of 12 grams in her daughter’s birth weight. Also, each additional year of a mother’s schooling is associated with a 31 percent decrease in the odds of being unmarried at the time of childbirth.

The results indicated that the causes of low birth weight extend much further back than a mother’s current pregnancy. In a release, UCI said Kane’s work “shows that key factors can be traced to the mother’s own early life experiences, in addition to factors dating back multiple generations.”

According to the university, this is the first study that links together social and biological factors in determining causes for low birth weight, which is generally described as 5.5 pounds or less. Babies born at that weight can have cognitive and physical difficulties.