Recurring migraine attacks can be a sign that you have high blood pressure. Here’s how to know whether your migraines are related to high blood pressure.
What is High Blood Pressure?
Blood pressure is the pressure of our blood against our blood vessels at is it pumped through the body by the heart. It is given as two numbers, for example 120/80; the first is the systolic – the high pressure when the heart is at the strongest part of its contraction, the second is the diastolic – the pressure at the point of the heartbeat when the heart is relaxed. We talk about high blood pressure or hypertension because it can increase our risk of certain serious diseases, and also because it can be a sign that something isn’t right in the body. Usually, high blood pressure is anything above 140/90, although the recommended threshold for treatment may be lower in at-risk individuals, and health authority guidelines can change in line with new evidence.
High Blood Pressure and Headaches
Most people with high blood pressure don’t know about it until it’s picked up at an appointment with a healthcare professional. Some people, however, do have some symptoms relating to high blood pressure, particularly when blood pressure becomes extremely – sometimes dangerously – high.
There has been a lot of research into the relationship between high blood pressure and headaches or migraines, but not a lot of definite conclusions. Most people who get migraines and headaches don’t seem to have any related changes in their blood pressure, and most people with high blood pressure do not have migraines that correlate consistently with their blood pressure.
Some studies have found that migraines correlate somewhat with lower systolic but higher diastolic blood pressure. In fact, some studies have found a link between migraines and low blood pressure. Migraines also seem to be more frequent in people who have chronic high blood pressure that isn’t well-managed.
In people who do have symptoms that occur alongside high blood pressure, one of the most common symptoms they describe is a headache.
What Does a Headache Feel Like with High Blood Pressure?
Headaches that are linked to high blood pressure are often described specifically as a pounding, tight, or banging pain, sometimes with a migraine-like ‘aura’. When a headache or migraine is linked to extremely high blood pressure, it may involve other symptoms such as confusion, nausea, chest pain, and feelings of anxiety and panic.
Migraines can be very severe headaches, and are often described as having an ‘aura’ – sensations or changes in vision that appear before the more typical symptoms. People describe flashing lights, being sensitive to light and sound, nausea and sickness with migraines. Migraines differ from headaches in that they are more likely to have these other symptoms, affecting vision, hearing, and other parts of the body, beyond a more localised headache. A headache can be extremely severe, but in general, people describe the pain of migraines as being worse than most headaches.
Can High Blood Pressure Cause Migraine, or Can Migraine Cause High Blood Pressure?
Raised blood pressure doesn’t usually cause any symptoms, but a hypertensive crisis – acute dangerously high blood pressure – can have significant symptoms.
Some people do get migraines with high blood pressure, but the link between the two is quite complex. Migraines and high blood pressure can each have the same cause. A person is more likely to have a migraine or high blood pressure when they are ill, stressed, depressed, reacting to food intolerances, doing sudden strenuous exercise, or for lots of other reasons. This means that migraine and high blood pressure may sometimes happen at the same time because they have the same underlying cause.
Blood pressure can be raised when someone is unwell, under stress, or for lots of other reasons, so someone suffering from a migraine – an acute episode of pain and other unpleasant symptoms – might have elevated blood pressure as a result. People who report having the kind of migraine that comes with an ‘aura’ – people often describe flashing lights and similar symptoms before a migraine – are at a slightly increased risk of cardiovascular disease. The mechanisms of this link aren’t fully understood, but it does mean that people who suffer from migraines should be aware of their risk of cardiovascular disease and manage their other risk factors as well as they can.
The reason some people get migraines and others don’t isn’t completely clear, but we do know that changes in brain activity that affect the blood vessels, nerves and chemical signals cause the symptoms of a migraine. Blood pressure affects the vascular system, which includes the blood vessels that support the brain, and there is a strong physiological relationship between migraines and the vascular system.
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Managing Migraines at Home
People who have regular, frequent, or unmanageable migraines should get advice from their doctor. The doctor should check their blood pressure at the same time, to rule out any link with blood pressure that should be treated.
Some people with migraines may find that they can identify triggers; some people get migraines after certain foods, with hormonal changes, with illness, stress, or anxiety. Being able to recognise and manage these triggers, or at least anticipate the possibility of a migraine can help with migraine management.
Managing a migraine attack is also quite an individual process; many people find that being in a darkened room or trying to sleep can help. Taking a dose of a simple painkiller like paracetamol at the very start of the symptoms can help to reduce the overall severity of the migraine.
If simple home management of migraine isn’t working, or they’re frequent and severe enough to have an impact on your day-to-day life, a doctor may consider further investigations or can prescribe stronger treatment for migraine. If nausea and vomiting are a problem, anti-sickness medication can also be prescribed.
When to See a Doctor
Anyone having persistent headaches or pain that isn’t manageable with simple home treatment should make an appointment to see a doctor. Anyone who uses home blood pressure monitors and finds that their blood pressure is consistently higher than the recommended limits, or that it is occasionally much higher than the recommended limits, should make an appointment with their doctor.
If you have other health conditions that mean that you’re more at risk of or from high blood pressure, it’s important to attend regular health checks and chronic disease clinics. Taking medical advice on lifestyle, management, and treatment is essential.
A hypertensive crisis is a sudden sharp rise in blood pressure, usually with a systolic of over 180 and a diastolic over 120. A hypertensive crisis is a medical emergency as it causes a significant risk of serious acute events such as stroke or other organ damage. Extremely high blood pressure can also be a symptom of other conditions such as problems with the heart or kidneys. A severe headache is one of the symptoms associated with a hypertensive crisis.
Other symptoms of a hypertensive crisis can include:
- Confusion or altered conscious levels
- Severe agitation and anxiety
- Chest pain and breathlessness
Any of these symptoms should assessed urgently. A hypertensive crisis may need to be treated in hospital.
Elevated high blood pressure in pregnancy can be very serious and needs to be assessed urgently by a professional.
If you have a diagnosis of high blood pressure or are at increased risk, your doctor may recommend that you have regular check-ups where they will check your blood pressure and other vital signs and can give advice or prescribe medications to help keep your blood pressure and other related conditions under control. Care services are available to support people with high blood pressure to make healthy lifestyle choices, monitor their condition, and follow their treatment plans.
Blood pressure is a condition which has a complex range of contributing factors and risk factors. Some of the risk factors for high blood pressure can be changed; our lifestyles have a huge bearing on our risk of hypertension and vascular diseases.
A sensible healthy diet, plenty of exercise, and not smoking or drinking too much alcohol are the best things we can do to improve our blood pressure readings and reduce our risk of some serious health conditions. Reaching or maintaining a healthy weight is important for lots of reasons, and when we’re trying to reduce high blood pressure, that can include learning to manage stress in our everyday lives.
If you are prescribed medications for high blood pressure or any other condition, make sure you take them as directed and talk to your doctor if you’re thinking about stopping them, or if you have any problematic side-effects.
If you’re struggling with any symptoms or with trying to follow a healthy diet, talking to a GP can be the first step to a healthier life. Smoking cessation support, or needing advice on diet, stress and exercise are all common reasons to see a GP, so help is available.
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