Hypertension Emergency: How To Get Rid Of A High Blood Pressure Headache

Everyone knows what a headache feels like. The pain varies from slightly annoying to debilitating. More than 15% of American adults¹ regularly suffer from severe headaches and migraines.

While it’s possible to ease some headaches with over-the-counter medications, others, including high blood pressure headaches, require immediate medical attention. High blood pressure headaches must be dealt with quickly to avoid severe complications.

Let's take a closer look at how to get rid of a high blood pressure headache.

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High blood pressure and headaches

You might assume that elevated blood pressure (hypertension) causes headaches, but it’s not as simple as that. According to the American Heart Association (AHA)², high blood pressure doesn't cause headaches unless it’s extremely high.

When you are in a hypertensive crisis (systolic blood pressure over 180 mm Hg and/or diastolic blood pressure over 120 mm Hg), you might get a severe headache.

A hypertensive crisis accompanied by a headache is a medical emergency that could cause organ damage or a stroke if not treated immediately. If you have an acute headache while your blood pressure is over 180/120 mm Hg, you need to get medical help right away.

What is a high blood pressure headache?

A high blood pressure headache is different from other headaches you may have experienced before. It can cause damage to the brain called hypertensive encephalopathy as well as other life-threatening conditions.

When blood pressure spikes, cerebral blood vessels constrict³ and then relax quickly. This leads to small blood vessel damage, cerebral edema, and an increase in intracranial pressure which causes a headache.

Symptoms of a high blood pressure headache

Taking pain-relieving medication isn’t enough to cure a hypertension headache. It might feel like the pressure is building up inside your head, causing severe pain and a pulsing sensation. Sometimes, a hypertensive headache can be accompanied by other symptoms, including:

  • Nosebleed

  • Blood spots in the eyes

  • Flushed face

  • Vision problems (blurred vision or blindness)

  • Anxiety

  • Nausea

  • Shortness of breath

  • Back pain

Don't wait for other symptoms to develop. A severe headache coupled with high blood pressure is a legitimate reason to get emergency medical care.

How to relieve a hypertension headache

If you think you have a high blood pressure headache, you need to take the following steps:

  • Measure your blood pressure

  • Take your blood pressure again in five minutes

If your blood pressure remains high (over 180/120 mm Hg), you should:

Medical professionals may administer intravenous blood pressure medications and monitor you to ensure there is no organ damage. They will try to lower your blood pressure quickly but gradually. Lowering your blood pressure too fast could result in insufficient blood supply to your organs.

Once your blood pressure is down, your headache should subside. You might need to stay in hospital for a few days or until your blood pressure is under control, and you might be told to continue taking blood pressure medication after you have been discharged.

How NOT to relieve a hypertension headache

High blood pressure headaches are a symptom of a serious health emergency. Taking traditional pain relievers is ineffective and delays the medical care you need.

You can take previously prescribed blood pressure medication on your way to the emergency room, but don't wait for it to take effect as it might not help. To prevent serious complications, you need to get professional medical help within one to two hours.

High blood pressure headache complications

If you don’t get help quickly enough, your high blood pressure headache could cause malignant hypertension, which is accompanied by organ damage. High blood pressure headaches have many serious health risks, including:

  • Hypertensive encephalopathy (brain dysfunction)

  • Kidney failure

  • Stroke

  • Heart attack

  • Retinopathy (retina problems)

  • Pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs)

  • Heart failure

  • Aortic dissection (tearing of the aorta, a major artery)

Reacting quickly and decisively to a high blood pressure headache is important because many of these conditions can be fatal. You have a much higher chance of survival if they occur in a hospital setting.

How to prevent a high blood pressure headache

Monitoring your blood pressure is key to preventing a life-threatening high blood pressure headache. Doctors sometimes call high blood pressure a “silent killer” because it usually only causes symptoms in very severe cases.

To prevent a hypertensive emergency, you should measure your blood pressure at least twice a month. If you have a history of high blood pressure, your doctor may ask you to measure your blood pressure every day.

While it’s not always possible to prevent a hypertensive crisis, following these strategies can minimize your risk:

Your doctor can suggest preventive measures suited to you individually.

The lowdown

A high blood pressure headache is a medical emergency that can cause life-threatening damage to your body. It cannot be treated with pain-relieving medication —instead, you should seek professional medical help right away.

High blood pressure headaches can be accompanied by other symptoms, such as shortness of breath and vision problems. Measure your blood pressure and measure it again in five minutes if you think you have a high blood pressure headache. If your readings are high (over 180/120 mm Hg), take any prescribed blood pressure medication and seek emergency medical care. Don’t wait for your blood pressure medication to kick in as this could cost you valuable time.

Have you considered clinical trials for High blood pressure?

We make it easy for you to participate in a clinical trial for High blood pressure, and get access to the latest treatments not yet widely available - and be a part of finding a cure.

Joining community groups and exercise programs for my condition made me feel empowered – but I want to be part of finding a cure.
Peter, 64

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