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Can high blood pressure cause headaches?

February 28, 2024
5 minutes
Personal Health
Chronic conditions

If your healthcare provider has notified you that you have high blood pressure, or you've taken several self-readings with a blood pressure above the ideal pressure of 120/80 mm Hg, you may begin to realize that some health issues--such as headaches--may be influenced by your blood pressure.

Here, we'll demystify high blood pressure, explore the connection between high blood pressure and headaches, and discuss what you can do to relieve blood pressure related headaches.

Understanding high blood pressure

Also known as hypertension, high blood pressure means that the force of the blood being pushed against the walls of your arteries is too high. High blood pressure means that your heart is working unusually hard to pump blood throughout your body.

The American College of Cardiology offers four distinct categories for blood pressure readings:

  • Normal: Normal blood pressure is 120/80 mm HG (or lower).
  • Elevated: In this category, the top number can reach up to 129 mm Hg while the bottom number is 80 mm Hg or less.
  • Stage 1 hypertension: The first stage of high blood pressure is classified as a top number between 130 and 139 mm Hg and a bottom number between 80 and 89 mm Hg.
  • Stage 2 hypertension: The second stage of hypertension is classified as a top number of 140 mm Hg or above, and a bottom number of 80 mm Hg or above.

There are many risk factors that can contribute to a person's development of high blood pressure, including:

  • Age (men develop high blood pressure earlier in life, while women typically develop the condition after age 65)
  • Race/ethnicity (Black people are more susceptible to high blood pressure than people of other races)
  • Family history
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Smoking
  • Eating too much salt
  • Being obese or overweight
  • A high-stress lifestyle
  • Pregnancy
  • Drinking too much alcohol

Hypertension and headaches: What's the connection?

Research shows that people who have mild to moderate hypertension are not more likely to experience headaches than people who have healthy blood pressure. People who have high blood pressure, however, may experience headaches related to hypertension. Headaches that are related directly to high blood pressure are known as primary headaches. Secondary headaches, however, are related to other conditions that also cause blood pressure to spike. Conditions that can cause high blood pressure and headaches include pre-eclampsia, eclampsia, hypertensive encephalopathy, and pheochromocytoma.

If you're aware that you have high blood pressure, and you experience a severe headache, unlike any headache or migraine pain you've ever had before, it's important that you go straight to the emergency room. You may be experiencing a hypertensive emergency. In addition to an extremely severe headache, you may experience dizziness, an altered mental status, shortness of breath, vomiting, chest pain, and/or changes in your vision.

Managing high blood pressure

If you have high blood pressure and are experiencing headaches, it's important that you work closely with your healthcare provider to ensure that you're not suffering from a secondary condition. Here, we'll take a look at the steps that you can take to alleviate high blood pressure that is not caused by another health issue.

Quit smoking

There are many reasons to quit smoking, and lowering your blood pressure is one of them. Smoking makes your heart work harder, and quitting can help improve your overall health, including lowering your blood pressure.

Lifestyle changes

There are many lifestyle changes that you can make to lower your blood pressure. For many people, blood pressure is positively correlated with weight gain. Typically, blood pressure can be expected to go down about 1 mm Hg for every 2.2 pounds of body weight lost.

Talking with your doctor, a registered dietitian, or a licensed personal trainer can help you learn what weight goal is healthiest for your body. Eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly (more on that in a moment!), and maintaining a waist measurement of less than 35 inches for women or 40 inches for men can all help to keep your blood pressure down.

Stress management

Stress is an unavoidable part of life, but chronic stress can take a serious toll on your health. While more research is needed to understand exactly how stress levels affect blood pressure, taking steps to lower stress can benefit your health in many ways.

Some tips to lower your daily stress levels include:

  • Take control of your to-do list. Learning how to say no to others and being realistic about the number of tasks you can handle can help you prioritize your health.
  • Chat with a licensed therapist. There's nothing wrong with asking for help, and talking with a licensed professional about mental health can help you develop personalized coping strategies that can help you feel your best.
  • Prioritize self-care. Taking time for yourself to exercise, meditate, and spend time with loved ones can all help you lower your stress levels.

Prioritize rest

Getting high quality sleep can contribute to lower blood pressure. If you have trouble falling or staying asleep, it's important to talk with your doctor to rule out underlying conditions. Generally, going to bed and waking up at the same time each night can help you get the most out of sleep. Avoiding caffeine in the afternoon and evening can help you improve your sleep quality as well.

Dietary changes

Making small changes to your diet can go a long way when it comes to achieving healthy blood pressure. Steps that you can take to lower your blood pressure include:

  • Limit salt in your diet. Cook at home more often, and don't add salt to your food when you cook.
  • Enjoy foods lower in saturated fat and cholesterol.
  • Increase the amount of whole grains, vegetables, and fruit in your diet.
  • Drink plenty of water throughout the day.

Talk with your doctor

In some cases, medications are necessary to keep you safe while you implement lifestyle changes that can help you lower your blood pressure. Talk with your doctor about the best path forward after you've been diagnosed with high blood pressure.

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