A headache could be a sign of a hypertensive emergency.
Hypertension -- a blood pressure above 140/90 mmHg -- contributes to 1 of every 7 deaths in the U.S. Uncontrolled high blood pressure increases your risk for heart failure, heart attack, stroke and other serious problems. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 70 million American adults have hypertension, only 70 percent of them are being treated for hypertension, and only 50 percent of them have their blood pressure controlled. Because hypertension usually causes no symptoms, many people are not aware their blood pressure is high.
Blood Pressure Stages
In an effort to quantify risks for complications due to hypertension and guide the treatment of this common problem, the Joint National Committee on the Prevention, Detection, Evaluation and Treatment of High Blood Pressure has categorized hypertension according to its severity. A blood pressure below 120/80 is defined as normal. Blood pressures between 120/80 and 139/89 are considered pre-hypertension. Stage I hypertension lies between 140/90 and 159/99, and stage II hypertension is anything above 160/100. In most cases, even people with stage II hypertension have no symptoms.
Over time, hypertension injures the arteries that supply blood to your vital organs. Your eyes, heart, brain and kidneys are most susceptible to the effects of high blood pressure. In many cases, people are not aware they have hypertension until an organs has sustained irreversible damage, which could cause heart attack, stroke or sudden vision loss. According to the author of a study published in the December 2010 issue of the journal вЂњDeutsches Artzeblatt,вЂќ this вЂњend-organвЂќ damage is preventable or reversible if hypertension is detected and treated early.
Although you may not have symptoms even when your blood pressure is extremely high, if you develop a severe headache, blurred vision, shortness of breath, chest pain, nausea, vomiting, nosebleeds or sudden memory problems or confusion, you could be experiencing a hypertensive emergency. This situation is characterized by a sudden, intense blood pressure elevation accompanied by accelerated end-organ damage. Hypertensive emergencies usually occur at blood pressures above 180/120, but they may occur at lower pressures. Immediate medical evaluation and treatment are needed to prevent serious complications or death due to a hypertensive emergency.
Hypertension is called the silent killer because it rarely causes symptoms until your blood pressure is extremely high or organ damage has occurred. Some people who have poorly controlled hypertension complain of fatigue, dull headaches, poor exercise tolerance or other nonspecific symptoms when they exhibit no obvious signs of end-organ damage, such as protein in their urine, ECG abnormalities or bleeding in their eyes. Because there are no specific points at which high blood pressure becomes dangerous for everyone, and because organ damage occurs at lower pressures in some people, even nonspecific symptoms should prompt a visit to your doctor if you have high blood pressure.
Because hypertension is common but usually asymptomatic, it's important to have your blood pressure checked regularly and, if necessary, begin treatment as early as possible. While there is no universal agreement on the ideal screening interval, the Joint National Committee recommends getting your blood pressure measured at least once every 2 years if your pressure is currently below 120/80. If you have pre-hypertension -- a pressure between 120/80 and 139/89 -- your pressure should be checked once a year. If you have already been diagnosed with hypertension, follow your doctor's recommendations.