Is High Blood Pressure Causing My Headache?

by James on 20 December 2008

It seems intuitive that high blood pressure, or hypertension, would cause headache.  After all, we often associate headaches with our blood vessels, especially headaches with pounding pain.

High blood pressure is just what it sounds like – your blood is moving through your blood vessels at a higher pressure than normal.  Of course, your blood pressure is constantly changing due to a variety of factors, but we’re talking about a higher pressure than is normal under the circumstances, or generally higher than normal.

In 1913 Dr. Theodore C. Janeway suggested a link between high blood pressure and headache.  Many of Janeway’s theories are still generally accepted today – but the hypertension headache connection is under suspicion.

I should put it this way – it’s generally accepted that hypertension in most cases doesn’t cause headache.  In fact, it’s more likely to be the other way around.

In fact, this past spring a study in Norway (published in the 15 April edition of Neurology) suggested that high blood pressure is linked to fewer headaches, and even migraine attacks!

It seems more clear that headaches could cause high blood pressure.  First, pain itself can cause temporary high blood pressure.  That’s usually not considered dangerous, and it goes away (in other words, chronic pain is not likely to cause long-term high blood pressure).

Second, many medications taken for headache can cause high blood pressure.  Long term use of anti-inflammatory drugs can cause hypertension.  This would include ibuprofen (ie Advil) and naproxen (Naprosyn).

But wait – aren’t some drugs for hypertension also used to treat migraine?  Yes, there are preventative drugs for migraine that are also used for hypertension, such as calcium channel blockers and beta blockers (such as Atenolol (Tenormin)).  However, the reason these work for migraine is not the same reason they work for high blood pressure.

In 2005, British researchers fought back and suggested that hypertension does cause headache.  This was a meta-study, studying the data from other studies.  However, there are reasons why this probably isn’t the last word.

For example, the study showed that people on medication for hypertension had fewer headaches.  That shouldn’t be a surprise, but it’s a long way from proving that hypertension is causing headache.  Also, these weren’t studies designed to find out if high blood pressure causes headache – they were focused on other things.  Studies focused on the question are still inconclusive after almost 100 years.  (more on this study)

Drs Young and Silberstein sum it up well in their book Migraine and Other Headaches:

In order for high blood pressure to cause a headache, it has to be so high that it overcomes the normal protective reflex of the brain’s blood vessels … Blood pressure so high that it causes a headache is a medical emergency.  Some people may have high, but not immediately dangerous, blood pressure due to pain caused by a headache.

Is high blood pressure causing my headache?  Probably not.  But do be cautious of taking medications that could increase blood pressure, especially if your doctor is already concerned about your blood pressure.

Be Sociable, Share!

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Nathan from New Orleans January 2, 2009 at 6:28 pm

This is a very well written article. One time a doctor said I had high blood pressure from too much salt though I don’t think I use that much.

Maybe I stay on this computer too long and it gives me headaches which causes my blood pressure to go up!

Nathan

Reply

RocMon May 16, 2012 at 8:36 am

Nathan, I’m in the same boat… too much computer time, not enough exercise and occasional salt binges! :(

Reply

Pacita January 4, 2009 at 11:46 pm

I came from a long line of hypertensive family and, unfortunately, I did not escape that gene. When I forget to take my hypertensive medicine, I do get a headache, which I take is a signal that my blood pressure is up. This is the first time I heard that it is the other way around. Whoever is right, I wish that someone will someday find a permanent cure for hypertension.

Reply

James January 9, 2009 at 8:30 pm

Thanks for your comments. Hopefully the new research being done with find a cure for both headaches and hypertension!

Reply

Diana April 15, 2009 at 10:46 am

Hi:

I have been undiagnosed with “uncontrollable” high blood pressure. That said, my doc has recently increased my meds (Benicar 40, Bystolic 10, Tekturna 150 working towards 300) and I am experiencing regular headaches and my visual acuity seems diminished. Could this be side effects of the bp meds, or something that I should either wait out or deal with immediately? Every trip to my doc is over $100 even with insurance, so I’m trying to evaluate when to go.

Reply

Jake December 16, 2009 at 3:11 pm

I have suffered from a mild headache every day for the past 6 years. The following would be my comments to your article:
* The medical community does not understand the cause of migraines and most Drs freely admit that
* Most Drs tend to believe that most, if not all, headaches are somehow the result of the migraine process, even though that process or cause is not understood.
* Treating a headache, just about any headache, seems to be a process of trial and error with a variety of migraine medications. Anything to keep a patient from over using pain meds.
* In my experience, treating all headaches as if they were migraines is a huge mistake that leaves thousands like me inadequately treated.

The conclusion I have drawn from my experience with all of this, is that Drs are not willing to even think about a root cause because it must be related to migraine and we don’t understand migraine. I challenged a headache specialist once, that if I was to get 2 hours of her time, she could have my root cause figured out. It is as obvious to me as if I came in with a broken arm and pointed to it. I needed to make it obvious to her. She said I would have to commission a $1M study to figure it out.

Another headache specialist, after seeing me for several sessions, and probably at the 2 hour mark of listening to me, suddenly sat up in his chair one day in total surprise: “you don’t have a migraine !” I was absolutely dumbfounded that he had not figured it out sooner. Then he went on to tell me that half of his patients have chronic daily headache. To me this is a failure of the entire industry, not just any one Dr.

You say it is possible headaches cause hypertension. Sure and a million other things ! I say the industry needs to quit relying on a poorly understood migraine phenomenon and try solving some simpler headaches that beg to be solved. When these are solved, it will shed important light on what goes on in a migraine attack. They have got it backwards in trying to get the migraine process to shed light on milder more constant headaches. There is not doubt that as my daily blood pressure rises each day, it causes my headache. I have read several of Silberstein’s articles and I would have this to say about his comment for extremely high pressures needed to damage the protective reflex of a blood vessel: Is it possible that some of us have damaged vasculature that has been damaged over a long period of time from a variety of causes in addition to over pressurization ?

My point with all of this is that there seems to be many headaches out there that can be solved relatively easy. Why not start there ? Then publish a simple case study for the benefit of the rest of us.

Reply

Davis Were April 19, 2011 at 11:06 am

My doctor recently diagnosed me with High blood pressure (160/86). He then put me on some medication after I had complained of serious headache, sometimes at the temples, at the back of the head. This has sometimes made me support my head from the chin to keep it raised. It however, goes away when I have a bed rest. Since the visit to the doctor, I have not had the headache disappear, though it is now mild. And because of late I have been not so close to the doctor, I visited a clinic where I was prescribed to some Inderal and Betapyne Tablets but my worry is; When I was looking at the side effects of Inderal, I got scared, really scared. How I wish I could have a permanent solution to this feeling. Please email me for advice.

Reply

karen June 8, 2011 at 7:41 pm

hmmm. am wondering about headaches because i feel for my 80 yr old mom who taught anatomy and physiology for 50 yrs and is trying to figure this out. now i realize she takes two medications.. one for high blood pressure and one anti-inflammatory to keep her joints limber.. seems to me these two can be feeding off each other..for example, the anti-inflammatory can be causing the high blood pressure …and thereby causing the headache..which she has had for over two months … she has taken this medication for over two years and takes about half the dosage perscribed because of her age … also she took a horrible drug called levaquin which last year was supposed to act as a antibiotic for a chest congestion – and ended up tearing her arm ligament! …but also it made her feel tingly all over for months afterwards…and perhaps this longstanding headache is a backlash from that as well….she eats a pretty healty diet though still eats meat = high in sodium … what is is hard is she will only consult a medical doctor no natural doctors who would prescribe food medicine like garlic to lower blood pressure naturally …she wonders ..how much garlic do i take to be sure my blood pressure will be lowered? also ginger is a known anti-inflammatory but again,,,how much to be effective? if there was a medical journal… that stated how much and if a real medical doctor would second the nomination then she might try natural substitues which might get at the root cause…oh maybe i can pay her md doctor a visit without her knowing and hope he is open minded…any suggestions would be appreciated!

Reply

radiotube September 15, 2012 at 1:42 am

“Is high blood pressure causing my headache? Probably not”

The “Probably” sums it up. We don’t know 100% for certain and some individuals may have different reactions. To throw a monkey wrench at this, I have had high blood pressure for about 20 years or more and did not know it. I was being treated with a medicine that helped that, and helped a racing heart. It worked, or so I thought. It did work, but the problem was I was unaware that it was not working as good as it could have been. It often prevented racing heart, and helped blood pressure. However, my blood pressure would still rise above 140/90 several times a day. In fact I’d find it at 138/85 one hour, but two hours later catch it at 160/110 for example. In other words, this medicine helped but not enough.

On the other hand, I thought it was doing it’s job and that the fluctuations were simply due to my ever changing activity during the day. After all, I could relax back in a chair, breath deeply and quickly get back to normal blood pressure with the help of the medicine. That said, I had frequent headaches. Several a week.

Finally after all these years my usual med was not doing it’s job anymore. I started this year to have high blood pressure too often. So my doctor recommended a new medicine that was supposed to work much better. Now after trying it, my blood pressure is nearly 100% stable! It is always around 130/85 or slightly lower.. And rarely over 140/90.

Days and days have passed and no headache. Someone could say it could be some other reason, but after about 20 years of having unstable blood pressure and not realizing it, then going to stable blood pressure, suddenly I see a huge difference and improvement in the amount of headaches. So I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that high blood pressure can cause at least some people headaches.

Reply

Barbara Hunt September 20, 2012 at 6:56 pm

To RADIOTUBE: what is the name of the medication you are NOW on that has stabilized your BP and reduced the number of your headaches? Thanks so much.

Reply

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: