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Where It Comes From and What You Can Do About It
The human body can produce a host of peculiar sensations, and many come from a sudden change of environment or body chemistry. Orthostatic hypotension — commonly known as a “head rush” — is one such sensation: it typically happens when you suddenly stand up, especially after a prolonged period of sitting or lying down.
Head rush is typically a passing feeling that brings minimal discomfort, and it doesn’t damage your brain or body. On the other hand, head rush can point to an underlying condition that is damaging your body, so it’s a good idea to know what sorts of things can cause the event, and any related symptoms that will call for a closer investigation.
Why Do You Get Lightheaded?
In the end, gravity is to blame for your head rush. When you stand up, some blood collects in your legs and ankles, which can drag down your blood pressure.
But standing up is a necessary and frequent task, so your body has built-in mechanisms to counteract that drop in blood pressure: the brain quickly tells the blood vessels to narrow and the heart to pump harder in order to move the blood up the body faster. This neurological event is so quick and automatic, you likely never notice it at all.
Head rush happens when your body cannot respond to your change from a horizontal to a vertical position fast or well enough. If you’re unable to counteract the natural drop in blood pressure, less blood will reach your brain, and that can bring on a bout of dizziness, light-headedness, blurry vision, or even fainting.
Disorders That May Cause Orthostatic Hypotension
A head rush isn’t a disorder in its own right, but it can be a symptom of another condition. In some cases, the treatment you take for a different ailment could bring on the characteristic drop in blood pressure.
Blood Vessel Disorders
Since blood vessels act as corridors for oxygenated blood, the way they constrict or dilate will determine how blood moves through the body and feeds the cells. If they’re not in good working order, your blood pressure will suffer.
Head rush may be traced to the nerves in the blood vessels, the flexibility of their walls, and their general health. Many chronic conditions can damage blood vessels or interfere with their function, including:
- Thyroid conditions
- Adrenal insufficiency
- Parkinson’s disease
- Lewy body dementia
- Heart failure
- Low heart rate (bradycardia)
Your circulatory system is complex and interdependent, so damage or dysfunction in one area can cause a range of symptoms all over. Any spinal cord injury that affects the nerves, or a hormonal imbalance that affects blood pressure, can interrupt blood flow and cause head rush.
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The less fluid in your body, the less there is to manufacture blood, and your blood volume will decrease. Even mild dehydration after a strenuous workout, not drinking enough water, or too much alcohol or caffeine can leave you feeling a bit dizzy and weak, and head rush is a common side effect.
Vomiting, diarrhea and fever can bring more severe dehydration; a head rush is a sign that you need to top up your fluid levels right away. Also, your risk for dehydration is higher than you think when you’re in a very hot environment, which can explain why head rush might hit you more often during a heat wave.
Many drugs used for common conditions are diuretics, which means they drain fluid from the body. While they may not leave you in a state of dehydration, diuretics will lower your blood volume, and in turn, lower your blood pressure.
Other types of medications are designed to expand your blood vessels to help them move blood around the body more easily. If you’ve been diagnosed with high blood pressure and are treating it with blood vessel dilators (such as ACE inhibitors), you may be more prone to spells of low blood pressure when you stand up.
In general, your risk for orthostatic hypotension increases with age — it’s most common in people over 65. The cells that respond to the drop in blood pressure upon standing begin to lose their power, and the heart may not be able to switch into high gear as quickly as it needs to in order to compensate.
However, some risk factors — like pregnancy, heat exposure or alcohol consumption — can increase your chances of head rush no matter how old you are.
Natural Reaction or Cause for Concern?
Almost everyone will experience head rush from time to time — it’s a common symptom, and often no cause for alarm. On the other hand, head rush can point to deeper issues — even serious cardiovascular diseases, as recent research shows.
A 2012 study followed more than 12,000 adults for nearly 20 years to see how orthostatic hypotension might relate to heart health. Researchers found that those who experienced head rush in a simple standing test at the start of the study were about 50 percent more likely to eventually develop heart failure. The risk appeared to be highest for adults below the age of 55.
Of course, not every head rush points to an impending disease. Try not to worry about the odd head rush, but watch out for these warning signs, which should prompt you to make an appointment with your doctor:
As is the case with many symptoms and discomforts, persistence is key. If you find you get a head rush every time you stand up from a seated position, there’s a strong likelihood that it’s not just a blip in your body’s corrective mechanism.
High Blood Pressure
If you’ve been diagnosed with high blood pressure, you are more likely to experience bouts of low blood pressure when you stand up. If you’re also taking medications to dilate your blood vessels, you’re even more prone to head rush.
Speak with your doctor about making some changes if you think there may be ways to improve your current management plan.
If your head rushes are so intense you sometimes (or often) faint, you should see your doctor. Fainting is your body’s emergency brake, a drastic effort to return blood to your brain, but it can also lead to serious injury if you fall.
Chronic head rush that goes unchecked and untreated for a long time can lead to other complications. Stroke risk can go up, and heart rhythm problems can develop, but the daily discomfort and worry that comes with these frequent dizzy spells can make everyday life more difficult, too.
The most important step is to see your doctor for a blood pressure evaluation and physical exam. Even if there is a health condition to blame, head rush is often an early warning sign, so diagnosis can be made and treatment started before the problem progresses.