High blood pressure can be difficult to recognize without using a blood pressure monitor. Many people do not experience symptoms unless their blood pressure is dangerously high. When symptoms do occur with high blood pressure, they may include a severe headache. People who suspect that they have symptoms of high blood pressure should not ignore them.
This article explains when high blood pressure might cause a headache and what the additional symptoms might be. It also covers when to seek immediate medical treatment.
What does the science say?
Study results provide conflicting evidence on whether or not high blood pressure causes headaches:
Evidence supporting the idea
According to a paper in the Iranian Journal of Neurology, headaches due to high blood pressure typically occur on both sides of the head.
The headache pain tends to pulsate and often gets worse with physical activity. According to the authors, high blood pressure can cause headaches because it affects the blood-brain barrier. Hypertension can result in excess pressure on the brain, which can cause blood to leak from the blood vessels in this organ. This causes edema, or swelling, which is problematic because the brain sits within the skull and has no space to expand.
The swelling places further pressure on the brain and causes symptoms that include a headache, dizziness, nausea, confusion, weakness, seizures, and blurred vision. If a person receives treatment to lower their blood pressure, their symptoms will usually improve within an hour.
Evidence contradicting the idea
The American Heart Association maintain that people do not usually experience headaches when their blood pressure is high unless it goes above a reading of 180/120.
Researchers have also looked at whether having regular headaches might affect a person’s overall heart health.
A study in the American Journal of Hypertension followed 1,914 people with hypertension for 30 years and monitored their headaches. The results showed no link between the regular occurrence of headaches and the likelihood of cardiovascular mortality.
Therefore, there is no indication that people who have regular headaches not relating to high blood pressure will have heart problems. The researchers propose that headaches might signal a need for treatment and make people more likely to take antihypertensive medications where necessary.
Other high blood pressure symptoms
Not all people with high blood pressure will experience symptoms. As a result, high blood pressure is known as a silent killer.
When blood pressure increases rapidly and severely, typically up to readings of 180/120 or higher, this is known as a hypertensive crisis.
If a person has dangerously high blood pressure but no other symptoms, the condition is called hypertensive urgency. If they are experiencing additional symptoms, it is a hypertensive emergency.
Other symptoms can include:
- back pain
- difficulty speaking
- facial flushing
- numbness or weakness
- severe anxiety
- shortness of breath
- vision changes