Increased Intracranial Pressure (ICP) Headache

A brain injury or another medical condition can cause growing pressure inside your skull. This dangerous condition is called increased intracranial pressure (ICP) and can lead to an ICP headache. The pressure also further injure your brain or spinal cord.

This kind of headache is an emergency and requires immediate medical attention. The sooner you get help, the more likely you are to recover.

What causes an ICP headache?

Causes of this type of headache include:

  • Too much cerebrospinal fluid (the fluid around your brain and spinal cord)
  • A tumor causing pressure on some part of your brain
  • Bleeding into the brain
  • Swelling in the brain

These medical conditions can also cause ICP:

  • Aneurysm
  • Blood pooling in some part of the brain
  • Brain/head injury
  • Brain tumor
  • Infections such as encephalitis or meningitis
  • Hydrocephalus
  • High blood pressure
  • Stroke

What are the symptoms of an ICP headache?

The following are the most common symptoms of an ICP. However, each person may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Blurred vision
  • Feeling less alert than usual
  • Vomiting
  • Changes in your behavior
  • Weakness or problems with moving or talking
  • Lack of energy or sleepiness

The symptoms of an ICP headache may resemble other conditions or medical problems. Always consult your health care provider for a diagnosis.

How is an ICP headache diagnosed?

To diagnose ICP headache, your doctor may do the following:

  • Medical history and physical exam including a neurological exam to test senses, balance and mental status
  • Spinal tap (also called lumbar puncture), which measures the pressure of cerebrospinal fluid
  • Computed tomography (CT) scan, the gold standard imaging test, creates a series of cross-sectional X-ray images of the head and brain

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) (used after the initial assessment)uses magnetic fields to detect subtle changes in brain tissue content and can show more detail than X-rays or CT

How is an ICP headache treated?

Increased intracranial pressure is an emergency. Treatment might include:

  • Medication to reduce swelling
  • Draining extra cerebrospinal fluid or bleeding around the brain
  • Removing part of the skull (craniotomy) to ease swelling (though this is rare)

You may also be treated for the underlying cause of your intracranial pressure, which could be an infection, high blood pressure, tumor, or stroke.

What are the complications of an ICP headache?

ICP has serious complications, such as:

  • Seizures
  • Stroke
  • Neurological damage
  • Death

Can an ICP headache be prevented?

You can't prevent an intracranial pressure headache, but you can reduce your risk of certain underlying conditions that may lead to an ICP headache such as high blood pressure, stroke or infection. If you experience any of the symptoms, you need to get medical attention immediately.

When should I call my health care provider?

Call your doctor or 911 if you have any of the symptoms listed:

  • Blurred vision
  • Feeling less alert than usual
  • Vomiting
  • Changes in your behavior
  • Weakness or problems with moving or talking
  • Lack of energy or sleepiness

Key points

  • An ICP headache is a dangerous condition.
  • It is an emergency and requires immediate medical attention.
  • It is caused from increased intracranial pressure from bleeding in the brain, a tumor, stroke, aneurysm, high blood pressure, brain infection, etc.
  • Treatment includes relieving the brain of the increased pressure.
  • An ICP headache has serious complications including death.
  • You can't prevent an ICP headache.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your health care provider:

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
  • At the visit, write down the names of new medicines, treatments, or tests, and any new instructions your provider gives you.
  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.

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