Hypertension and headaches are each painful enough to manage on their own, but together they can create a seriously scary combination.
Many have always believed that headaches were a sign of high blood pressure.
But dangerously enough, many go undiagnosed because there are no classic warning symptoms associated with having high blood pressure.
So if you have hypertension, and sometimes experience severe headaches, understand that they may or may not be related to one another.
However, when a hypertensive patient complains of frequent or severe headaches, this can be a huge red flag.
BLOOD PRESSURE READINGS…WHEN SHOULD YOU BE WORRIED?
If you have a severe headache, and your blood pressure is excessively elevated, (systolic reading above 180, with diastolic reading above 110), you could be experiencing hypertensive urgency. You may or may not also exhibit symptoms such as shortness of breath, anxiety or nosebleeds.
This does not necessarily mean that you should run for the emergency room, but you should however see your doctor immediately to evaluate and readjust your treatment plan, if necessary, to avoid possible organ damage.
In any instance that your blood pressure exceeds 180 systolic or 110 diastolic, and you have any symptoms of neurological or organ damage, (such as chest or back pain, shortness of breath, numbness/weakness in your arms or legs, slurred speech or vision changes), it’s important to seek immediate medical assistance.
When in doubt, don’t wait to see if your blood pressure improves on its own. Uncontrolled blood pressure levels at this degree can lead to stroke, heart attack, loss of consciousness, memory loss, and kidney damage, just to name a few. It’s simply not worth the risk.
SEVERE HEADACHES… ARE THEY A SYMPTOM OR A DIAGNOSIS?
Anyone who’s a frequent sufferer of headaches can tell you that no matter what kind it is, you just want the pain to end. But understanding the basics of what types there are and what causes them, may help alleviate the concern that may be causing your blood pressure to rise.
Caused by any form of stress, a tension headache is the most common of all brain pain. Involving tightening of your facial and neck muscles, symptoms of a tension headache are usually described as a squeezing pain or pressure around the head.
The best form of prevention is pretty obvious… reduce your stress, get adequate sleep, eat well, exercise and take care of your body.
Often described as a throbbing pain in one area of the head, migraines symptoms often include nausea and sensitivity to light, but can also include additional symptoms commonly associated with a sinus headache.
There are many things that can trigger a migraine, such as certain foods or food additives, hormonal or brain chemical imbalances, stress, disruptive sleep patterns, medications, and even genetics.
The best form of prevention for migraines is to eliminate your triggers, if possible. If you feel that you frequently suffer from migraines, it’s best to consult your physician for a proper diagnosis in determining what triggers your headaches.
Symptoms include pain and pressure around your eyes, cheeks and forehead, which is often accompanied by a runny, stuffy nose, sore throat, a decreased sense of smell and taste, and often achy feelings in your upper teeth or jaw area. The pain of a sinus headache usually increases when bending or lying down.
But with some overlapping symptoms, sinus and migraine headaches are often misdiagnosed. Common features of a migraine headache that are not usually associated with allergies/sinus congestion are nausea and vomiting, or worsening pain that is caused sensory stimulation, such as bright light, strong odors, or noise.
*Something More Serious- if you experience a sudden headache (as in fine one minute, sudden pain the next), or if the headache is the worst you’ve ever had, if you have projectile vomiting without nausea, or any neurological symptoms (such as blurred vision, difficulty speaking, tingling or weakness in your arms or legs), it’s imperative that you seek immediate medical assistance.
HEADACHE & HIGH BLOOD PRESSURE, CAUSE OR EFFECT?
While headaches can be a dangerous symptom when combined with high blood pressure readings, (as previously described by hypertensive urgency symptoms), research now suggests that headaches are actually less common among those with untreated high blood pressure.
For decades, experts believed that hypertensive patients experienced more headaches than those with normal blood blood pressure. The reason being that high blood pressure causes the blood vessels in the skull to constrict- a phenomenon known as auto-regulation.
But according to recently published results from a Norwegian study(1), patients with untreated high blood pressure were half as likely to experience headaches compared to those with normal blood pressure reading, and similar health histories.
The study revealed an interesting relationship between the blood pressure readings of those in the untreated hypertensive group compared to those who were being treated, or had normal blood pressure readings. Their evidence suggests that with a decrease in blood pressure comes a decreased risk of experiencing headaches.
But bottom line, although this news may be exciting for headache sufferers, experts warn that you should not stop taking any prescribed medications without consulting your doctor. Most will agree that the risks associated with untreated high blood pressure far outweigh the reduced risk for experiencing headaches.
So while having “very high” blood pressure can cause a headache, having a headache is not typically a direct sign of having blood pressure, at all.
But if you are creating more stress on yourself due to having high blood pressure, and all of the individual factors involved in managing your health, then a headache can be a direct result of that tension.
NATURAL ALTERNATIVES TO OVER-THE-COUNTER PAIN RELIEVERS
For many, taking an over-the-counter pain reliever has been a reliable method for getting rid of a headache. But some are interested in a more natural alternative to relieve and even prevent their pain.
*Water- believe it or not, your headache may simply be the result of dehydration. So at the first sign of a headache, have a glass of water. Continue to hydrate yourself by sipping water throughout the day, and if dehydration is the cause of your pain, then you should gradually feel some relief.
*Cool compress- Placing a cool, wet washcloth over your forehead can help constrict the blood vessels that are causing your pain, particularly if your headache is in your sinuses or temple region. Resting in a cool, dark room is also helpful, particularly for migraine sufferers.
*Massage- Just as a nice massage will soothe your aching muscles, lightly applying pressure to your scalp, neck, temple area, and even ear lobes can help relieve the pain. Pressing gently, and moving in slow circles around your scalp, can help improve circulation and relieve tension. Using this same method to rub around the bridge of your nose and cheek area helps with sinus and migraine headaches, as well.
*Acupressure- It’s best to have someone else perform this technique (to allow both hands to be massaged simultaneously). Locate the area between your thumb and index finger bones meet. Apply firm pressure and massage each hand for ~5 minutes.
*Feverfew and ginger- Feverfew is an herb that has been used for centuries as a natural remedy for migraines. Combined with ginger, known for it’s anti-nausea properties, these two natural herbs may be worth considering.
*Vitamin D- With so much attention being focused on reducing the risk of skin cancer (by avoiding the sun, and diligently wearing sunscreen), being deficient in vitamin D is more common now than ever. But not only is vitamin D essential for your overall health, it may also effect your pain perception. Experts recommend that a daily intake of 2,000 mg through food sources, and supplementation, if necessary.
*Magnesium- Studies have indicated that many migraine sufferers tend to be deficient in magnesium. This important mineral, which not only is effective in helping to control your blood pressure, also helps to calm your excited nerves during a migraine. Talk to your doctor and see a daily supplement may be something to consider, if you are not getting enough dark leafy green veggies, nuts and seeds in your diet.
*Vitamin B2 (riboflavin)- Experts recommend to those who suffer migraine headaches to maintain adequate intake of Vitamin B2, which has been shown to decrease the frequency of experiencing these often debilitating headaches. By boosting the energy within nerve cells, about 400 mg per day has been found to be an effective treatment.
The best thing to do is to always to eliminate the source of the problem whenever possible.
For lowering both your blood pressure, as well as the risk of getting headaches, keep your stress to a minimum, maintain adequate nutrition through a healthy diet or supplements, if needed, and follow a regular exercise routine.
Taking care of your health is the best preventative medicine you can give to your body.
(1) Tronvik E, Stovner LJ, Hagen K, Holmen J, Zwart JA. High pulse pressure protects against headache: prospective and cross-sectional data (HUNT study). Neurology. 2008 Apr 15;70(16):1329-36.