Hypertensive Emergencies

Authored by , Reviewed by Dr Hayley Willacy | Last edited | Certified by The Information Standard

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Accelerated hypertension is a hypertensive emergency. There is a recent increase in blood pressure to very high levels (≥180 mm Hg systolic and ≥120 mm Hg diastolic) resulting in target organ damage - usually seen as neurological (eg, encephalopathy), cardiovascular or renal damage. The term malignant hypertension used to be reserved for cases where papilloedema was present but the two terms are now often used interchangeably[1].

Where there is no evidence of target organ damage, the condition is a hypertensive 'urgency' rather than 'emergency' and treatment may be more gradual.

Finding accelerated hypertension and target organ damage in a patient demands urgent admission for assessment and treatment to lower blood pressure within hours in order to minimise further end-organ damage and reduce the risk of life-threatening events such as myocardial infarction, encephalopathy and intracerebral haemorrhage or subarachnoid haemorrhage. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends same day referral for accelerated hypertension[1].:

  • With papilloedema and/or retinal haemorrhages; or
  • With life-threatening symptoms such as new-onset confusion, chest pain, signs of heart failure, or acute kidney injury; or
  • In patients suspected of having a phaeochromocytoma (labile or postural hypotension, headache, palpitations, pallor, abdominal pain or sweating).

There is a projected incidence of 1 to 2 cases per million per year, so this is not a common condition. However, a recent study of the number of visits to emergency departments with associated conditions or complications (eg, eclampsia, cerebral infarction and acute pulmonary oedema) doubled from 2006 to 2013[2].

Accelerated or malignant hypertension may be associated with any cause of secondary hypertension[3].

This may be asymptomatic or may present with any of the many symptoms and/or signs of end-organ damage:

  • Headache.
  • Fits.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Visual disturbance.
  • Chest pain.
  • Neurological deficit - eg, cerebrovascular event (CVE).
  • Bleeding due to disseminated intravascular coagulopathy (DIC).
  • Microangiopathic haemolytic anaemia.

The assessment and investigation of any patient thought to have accelerated hypertension should be undertaken urgently and by doctors with expertise in this field. This should include:

  • Full history - including:
    • Past medical history.
    • Full systems review.
    • Drug history including recreational drugs and over-the-counter herbal remedies.
  • Full examination - including:
    • Blood pressure measurements: lying, standing and in both arms (looking for coarctation or aortic dissection).
    • Fundoscopy - retinopathy: eg, grade III (flame haemorrhages, dot and blot haemorrhages, hard and soft exudates) to grade IV (papilloedema).
    • Cardiovascular examination: lying and standing blood pressure; look for signs of cardiac failure or pulmonary oedema, carotid or renal bruits, left ventricular heave, cardiac murmurs, third or fourth heart sounds.
    • Neurological examination.
  • Blood tests:
    • FBC ± clotting screen.
    • U&Es, creatinine.
    • Liver and TFTs.
    • Blood sugar measurement.
    • ± Cardiac enzymes and fasting blood lipids.
  • ± Ambulatory blood pressure monitoring.
  • Urine dip testing for protein and blood.
  • CXR: cardiac size, cardiac failure, etc.
  • ECG: left ventricular hypertrophy or left atrial enlargement.

Subsequent investigations may include:

  • CT/MRI scan of the head or kidneys.
  • Plasma renin activity.
  • Plasma aldosterone level.
  • 24-hour urine for vanillylmandelic acid (VMA) and metanephrine levels.
  • Auto-antibody levels - eg, antinuclear factor.

General measures

The aim is to reduce the blood pressure over 24-48 hours. Patients usually have altered blood pressure autoregulation and if the blood pressure is reduced too fast, there may be organ hypoperfusion.

  • Initially, try to reduce the mean arterial pressure by approximately 25% over the first 24-48 hours.
  • An arterial line is helpful for continuous blood pressure monitoring.
  • There may be severe sodium and volume depletion; volume expansion with isotonic sodium chloride solution may be required.

Drugs

Initially, an intravenous (IV) route is usually used. Nitroprusside is often used as an IV drug but labetolol or nicardipine are alternatives which can be switched to oral formulations once blood pressure control is achieved. There is, however, some evidence that labetalol may produce a greater reduction in peripheral blood pressure in the immediate treatment of malignant hypertension[5].

Phentolamine is the drug of choice for a phaeochromocytoma crisis. Also available parenterally are diltiazem, verapamil and enalapril. Hydralazine is reserved for use in pregnant patients.

Without treatment, accelerated hypertension may result in death within a year in over 90% of patients, as a result of end-organ damage - eg, myocardial infarction, CVE or renal failure. The prognosis has improved dramatically over the period of a few decades and with optimal treatment the five-year survival rate is >90%.

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Further reading and references

  • Astarita A, Covella M, Vallelonga F, et al; Hypertensive emergencies and urgencies in emergency departments: a systematic review and meta-analysis. J Hypertens. 2020 Jul38(7):1203-1210. doi: 10.1097/HJH.0000000000002372.

  • Pierin AMG, Florido CF, Santos JD; Hypertensive crisis: clinical characteristics of patients with hypertensive urgency, emergency and pseudocrisis at a public emergency department. Einstein (Sao Paulo). 2019 Aug 2917(4):eAO4685. doi: 10.31744/einstein_journal/2019AO4685.

  • Aronow WS; Treatment of hypertensive emergencies. Ann Transl Med. 2017 May5(Suppl 1):S5. doi: 10.21037/atm.2017.03.34.

  1. Hypertension in adults: diagnosis and management; NICE (August 2019)

  2. Janke AT, McNaughton CD, Brody AM, et al; Trends in the Incidence of Hypertensive Emergencies in US Emergency Departments From 2006 to 2013. J Am Heart Assoc. 2016 Dec 55(12). pii: JAHA.116.004511. doi: 10.1161/JAHA.116.004511.

  3. Naranjo M et al; Malignant Hypertension, StatPearls Publishing 2019

  4. Stanley A; Managing Hypertensive Emergencies, 2014 (downloadable pdf file).

  5. van den Bogaard B, Immink RV, Westerhof BE, et al; Central versus peripheral blood pressure in malignant hypertension effects of antihypertensive treatment. Am J Hypertens. 2013 Apr

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