Your blood pressure—the force of your blood as it travels through your arteries and blood vessels—can be high chronically, due to your diet, lifestyle, or genetics.
But it can also raise in an acute way: When you’re stressed, for example, your blood pressure can literally go up. In some situations, your blood pressure can be a medical emergency.
Called a “hypertensive crisis,” these situations where your blood pressure rises too high can only be treated in an emergency room. When is high blood pressure an emergency?
In this article, I’ll talk about high blood pressure, its symptoms and causes, and when it’s an emergency. I’ll outline some of the damage that a hypertensive emergency can cause if it’s ignored. And I’ll tell you when you should go to an emergency room for your symptoms.
What is High Blood Pressure?
Blood pressure is the force of blood as it travels through your arteries and blood vessels. The more tension there is, the higher your blood pressure reading will be.
When your arteries are healthy, blood flows more easily through your body as the resistance to blood flow is low. But if your arteries are too narrow or stiff, the resistance to blood flow is higher. Your heart must then work harder to pump blood through the body—increasing the blood pressure.
Blood pressure is measured using two numbers: Systolic pressure and diastolic pressure, which are represented as a fraction. The fraction for normal blood pressure is under 120/80 mm Hg, commonly said as “120 over 80.”
Systolic refers to the first, or top, number used to calculate your blood pressure. This is the pressure in your arteries when your heart beats.
Diastolic refers to the second, or bottom, number used to measure your blood pressure. This is the pressure in your arteries between heartbeats. The systolic number is written over the diastolic number to give you your overall blood pressure.
It can increase the risk for heart disease, heart attack, stroke, and kidney failure. It is also related to complications with dementia and sexual dysfunction.
For adults, A healthy blood pressure level is considered to be less than 120/80 mm Hg.
If you are seeing numbers that fluctuate higher than this, you may be diagnosed as follows:
- Elevated blood pressure: Higher than 120/80 and up to 130/80
- Stage 1 hypertension: 130/80 but lower than 140/90
- Stage 2 hypertension: 140/90 or higher
- Hypertensive emergency: Go to the ER immediately or call 9-1-1 if systolic pressure is 180 or higher and/or diastolic pressure is 120 or higher.
Both Stage 1 and Stage 2 hypertension can be treated effectively with blood pressure medications, diet, and lifestyle changes. Your health care provider will likely recommend a combined approach between many interventions.
If you have a family history of high blood pressure, your plan may include medication even if your blood pressure seems to be stable.
In your readings match those of a hypertensive emergency, or if you’re displaying the symptoms of a hypertensive emergency, you’ll need to be treated immediately at the emergency room.
Symptoms of High Blood Pressure
High blood pressure does not always cause symptoms—which is why it can be dangerous.
It is sometimes referred to as a “silent killer” since it can reach life-threatening levels without many obvious warning signs.
If you do have signs or symptoms of high blood pressure, they most likely won’t show up until your blood pressure is very high.
The following are more likely to be signs of hypertensive crises, and include the following symptoms:
- Severe headache
- Chest pain
- Vision changes or blurriness
- Mental confusion
- Difficulty breathing or taking a deep breath
- Irregular heartbeat
- General feeling of unwellness
The only definitive way to know if your blood pressure is high is to have it checked regularly.
When High Blood Pressure Needs Immediate Care
Blood pressure that exceeds 180/120 always needs immediate medical care. But you may require emergency care even if your numbers are lower, depending on your other health conditions.
If you experience any of the above symptoms and your blood pressure reads high, try to be still and calm and retest your numbers after five minutes.
However, if you are having chest pain, trouble breathing, or tightness in your arm, you should seek immediate medical care in an emergency department.
While high blood pressure itself does not cause dizziness, if you feel suddenly dizzy or lightheaded, especially alongside any of the other signs listed above, do not ignore it. This can be a warning sign of stroke, which can be caused by a hypertensive crisis.
Hypertensive urgency occurs when systolic blood pressure is higher than 180 or diastolic blood pressure is higher than 120, but there are no other signs of acute organ damage. Hypertensive emergencies occur when your systolic blood pressure is 180 or higher, and/or your diastolic blood pressure is 120 or higher and there are other symptoms indicative of organ damage.
These can both be life-threatening medical emergencies that can have severe consequences on other organs and body systems.
As with many conditions, pregnancy often has different guidelines for medical care. Blood volume can increase from 20-100% above pre-pregnancy levels, which can sometimes lead to higher blood pressure levels.
Blood pressure spikes in pregnancy are treated differently than in those who are not pregnant. Other pregnancy complications can cause blood pressure changes, too, like pre-eclampsia, which can be life-threatening for both mother and baby.
OBGYNs and other health care providers who are part of a prenatal care team will provide care instructions relating to blood pressure, headaches, or other risk factors.
If you are pregnant and feel suddenly unwell or experience a severe headache, nosebleed, or any other symptoms of high blood pressure, seek immediate medical attention at an ER.
Risks of Hypertensive Emergency
Delaying medical care during a hypertensive emergency can lead to death or cause permanent and severe damage to organs, including the brain, heart, and kidneys.
Excessive pressure on artery walls from high blood pressure, even if just for a few minutes, can be damaging.
High blood pressure can cause arteries that send blood to the brain to become blocked or burst, causing a stroke. When a stroke happens, brain cells die rapidly as they are deprived of oxygen.
If a stroke is not treated within minutes, it can result in brain damage that can lead to speech problems, physical disability, and loss of other basic functions. It can also be fatal.
High blood pressure can damage heart health, resulting in a myocardial infarction (MI), or heart attack. When blood pressure builds too high, it makes arteries less flexible and cuts off the flow of oxygen and blood back to the heart.
Without access to oxygen, the heart muscle gets damaged. If this continues without emergency medical intervention, it can be fatal.
Uncontrolled or untreated hypertensive emergencies can also result in:
- Heart failure
- Kidney damage
- Damage to blood vessels in the eyes
- Brain damage
When to Go to the ER
High blood pressure alone, even if it’s elevated, may not be a sign of an immediate medical emergency.
However, when blood pressure is very high (180/120) or when you have related symptoms—even just general feelings of unwellness, nausea, or fatigue coupled with very high blood pressure—it is important to reassess your blood pressure and get checked out.
ER trips may be expensive and time-consuming, but not acting quickly enough can have serious consequences.
Ask your doctor for personalized guidelines to know what threshold would require an emergency room visit for you, but in general, high blood pressure with chest pain, shortness of breath, dizziness, or other symptoms of a stroke (arm weakness, numbness in one side of the body, problems speaking) constitute a medical emergency.
Emergency medical providers will determine what’s going on and provide medical care.
How K Health Can Help
K Health offers affordable and convenient access to highly qualified doctors to treat and manage high blood pressure, as long as you are not having a hypertensive crisis.
You can meet with your K Health doctor from the comfort of your own home via the K Health app, all while knowing that you’re getting individualized and expert care.
Frequently Asked Questions
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
Stress and hypertension. (1998).
High blood pressure. (2018).
High blood pressure symptoms and causes. (2021).
Things you need to know about blood pressure and hypertension. (2006).
Facts about hypertension. (2021).
What are the symptoms of high blood pressure? (2016).
Treatment of hypertensive emergencies. (2017).
Cardiovascular physiology of pregnancy. (2014).