High Pressure Headaches
September 21, 2022 - Written By: Maria Arini Lopez, PT, DPT
Pressure headaches can be quite debilitating. To read more about low pressure headaches, click here. High pressure headaches, also known as increased intracranial pressure (ICP) headaches, are a dangerous condition.
While low pressure headaches are caused by decreased amounts of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) (the protective fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord), high pressure headaches occur when there is too much CSF, bleeding in the brain, or swelling of the brain. These side effects may result from brain tumors, an injury to the head, aneurysms (arteries with weakened or thinner areas in the blood vessel walls), infections such as encephalitis or meningitis, stroke, high blood pressure, and hydrocephalus (water on the brain).
Symptoms of increased ICP include:
Severe headache (high pressure headache) that worsens with sneezing, coughing, and exertion
Neck and shoulder pain
Ringing in the ears
Difficulty speaking or moving
While it is very rare, a high pressure headache is considered a dangerous medical emergency and requires urgent treatment to stop the swelling, bleeding, or fluid that is putting pressure on the brain. If you experience any of these symptoms, call your doctor or 911 right away.
Following a medical examination, your doctor may request either a computed tomography (CT) scan or a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan to see what is happening around the brain. Additional tests may include a lumbar puncture (spinal tap) to measure the pressure within the CSF.
Swelling that puts pressure on the nerves to the eyes (optic nerves) may cause blurred vision and may lead to blindness if it is not promptly diagnosed. Your doctor may also examine your eyes to determine if there is any sign of increased pressure on the optic nerves.
Immediate treatments include taking medication to decrease swelling, draining excess fluid from the brain, or, in very rare circumstances, undergoing a craniotomy (removing part of the skull) to release pressure on the brain. Acting quickly prevents development of more serious complications, such as seizures, damage to the nerves in the brain, stroke, and death.
It is very important to always be assessed by medical professionals after hitting your head, even if you don’t feel any symptoms right away. It may take time for these symptoms to develop after an injury to the head.
References and Resources
Increased Intracranial Pressure (ICP) Headache. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Accessed September 16, 2022.
Low-Pressure and High-Pressure Headaches. WebMD. Accessed September 16, 2022.
Maria Arini Lopez, PT, DPT
Maria Arini Lopez, PT, DPT, CSCS, CIMT, CMTPT is a freelance medical writer and Doctor of Physical Therapy from Maryland. She has expertise in the therapeutic areas of orthopedics, neurology, chronic pain, gastrointestinal dysfunctions, and rare diseases, especially Ehlers Danlos Syndrome.