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Hypertensive crises

Last updated: August 23, 2021

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Hypertensive crises refer to acute increases in blood pressure (generally defined as ≥ 180/120 mm Hg) that cause or increase the risk of end-organ damage, i.e., damage to the brain (e.g., encephalopathy, stroke), eyes (e.g., retinopathy), cardiovascular system (e.g., ACS, pulmonary edema, aortic dissection), and/or kidneys (e.g., acute renal failure). They can be due to primary hypertension or precipitated by underlying conditions (e.g., pheochromocytoma, pre-eclampsia, drug toxicity). Management consists of rapidly identifying end-organ damage with patient history, physical examination, and focused testing, and determining whether the rapid lowering of the blood pressure with IV antihypertensives is required. The ideal IV antihypertensive agent is determined by the underlying disorder, end-organ systems affected, and other patient factors. In the absence of end-organ damage, hypertensive crises should be managed with rapid follow-up and oral antihypertensives, as the prognosis is poor if they are left untreated. See also hypertension.

  • Preferred terminology
    • Hypertensive crisis (acute severe hypertension): an acute increase in systolic blood pressure ≥ 180 mm Hg and/or diastolic blood pressure ≥ 120 mm Hg [1]
    • Hypertensive urgency: hypertensive crisis that is either asymptomatic or with isolated nonspecific symptoms (e.g., headache, dizziness, or epistaxis) without signs of organ damage
    • Hypertensive emergency: hypertensive crisis with signs of end-organ damage, mainly in the cardiovascular, central nervous, and renal systems (see “Clinical features” below)
  • Historical terminology

Hypertensive urgency

Hypertensive emergency

Signs and symptoms of end-organ dysfunction

Additional clinical features that may be present

Approach to management

  1. Confirm blood pressure manually and on bilateral upper extremities.
  2. Determine if there are signs of end-organ damage.
    • Focused history/physical (see “Clinical features” below)
    • Select screening tests (see “Diagnostics” below)
  3. For hypertensive emergencies
    • ABCDE approach
    • Admit patients (ideally to ICU).
    • Lower the blood pressure acutely using IV agents and aim for targets based on the affected end-organs (see "Treatment" below).
    • Evaluate and treat underlying disorders.
  4. For hypertensive urgency
    • Select, reinstitute, or modify oral antihypertensive therapy.
    • In patients with a new diagnosis, evaluate for secondary causes of hypertension.
    • Arrange follow-up, monitoring, and counseling.

Red flags for hypertensive crisis

Evaluate for signs of end-organ damage [3][4]

Additional evaluation to consider

Hypertensive urgency [1][5]

Hypertensive urgency is usually caused by nonadherence to antihypertensive therapy. Aggressive intravenous antihypertensive therapy is not required.

Hypertensive emergency [1][5]

General principles

Rate and target of blood pressure reduction

Mean arterial pressure should not be lowered by more than 25% within the first hour, except in special cases. Reducing the blood pressure too rapidly can lead to hypoperfusion and ischemia in certain organs (e.g., brain, kidney, heart).

Choice of intravenous antihypertensive drugs

  • Consider the following factors when choosing an antihypertensive:
    • Desired rate of decrease in blood pressure
    • End-organ system affected
    • Underlying disorder
    • Presence or absence of comorbidities (e.g., heart failure, COPD)
    • Pharmacokinetics and adverse effects of the agent

Intravenous antihypertensives [1]

The response to and duration of action of IV hydralazine can be unpredictable. It should, therefore, be used with caution.

Because prolonged use of sodium nitroprusside carries a risk of cyanide toxicity, it should be limited in dose and duration of use.

Recommendations based on associated condition [1][4][5]

Associated condition Preferred intravenous antihypertensive [1] Additional considerations
Aortic dissection
Pulmonary edema
Acute coronary syndrome
Acute renal failure
Catecholamine excess
Acute ischemic stroke
Acute intracerebral hemorrhage
Eclampsia/severe pre-eclampsia

The drugs most commonly used to treat hypertensive emergencies are nitroprusside, labetalol, and nicardipine.

  1. Whelton, PK, Carey, RM et al. 2017 ACC/AHA/AAPA/ABC/ACPM/AGS/APhA/ASH/ASPC/NMA/PCNA Guideline for the Prevention, Detection, Evaluation, and Management of High Blood Pressure in Adults. Hypertension. 2017; 71 (6): p.e13–e115. doi: 10.1161/hyp.0000000000000065 . | Open in Read by QxMD
  2. Shantsila A, Lip GYH. Malignant Hypertension Revisited—Does This Still Exist?. American Journal of Hypertension. 2017; 30 (6): p.543-549. doi: 10.1093/ajh/hpx008 . | Open in Read by QxMD
  3. Varon J, Marik PE. Clinical review: the management of hypertensive crises. Crit Care. 2003; 7 (5): p.374-384. doi: 10.1186/cc2351 . | Open in Read by QxMD
  4. Whelton PK, Carey RM, Aronow WS, et al. 2017 ACC/AHA/AAPA/ABC/ACPM/AGS/APhA/ASH/ASPC/NMA/PCNA Guideline for the Prevention, Detection, Evaluation, and Management of High Blood Pressure in Adults: Executive Summary: A Report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on Clinical Practice Guidelines. Circulation. 2018; 138 (17). doi: 10.1161/cir.0000000000000597 . | Open in Read by QxMD
  5. Peixoto AJ. Acute Severe Hypertension. N Engl J Med. 2019; 381 (19): p.1843-1852. doi: 10.1056/nejmcp1901117 . | Open in Read by QxMD
  6. Wolf SJ, Lo B, Shih RD, Smith MD, Fesmire FM. Clinical Policy: Critical Issues in the Evaluation and Management of Adult Patients in the Emergency Department With Asymptomatic Elevated Blood Pressure. Ann Emerg Med. 2013; 62 (1): p.59-68. doi: 10.1016/j.annemergmed.2013.05.012 . | Open in Read by QxMD
  7. Hiratzka LF, Bakris GL, Beckman JA, et al. 2010 ACCF/AHA/AATS/ACR/ASA/SCA/SCAI/SIR/STS/SVM Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Management of Patients With Thoracic Aortic Disease. Circulation. 2010; 121 (13): p.e266-369. doi: 10.1161/CIR.0b013e3181d4739e . | Open in Read by QxMD
  8. Hemphill JC, Greenberg SM, Anderson CS et al. Guidelines for the Management of Spontaneous Intracerebral Hemorrhage. Stroke. 2015; 46 (7). doi: 10.1161/STR.0000000000000069 . | Open in Read by QxMD
  9. Powers WJ, Rabinstein AA, Ackerson T, et al. 2018 Guidelines for the Early Management of Patients With Acute Ischemic Stroke: A Guideline for Healthcare Professionals From the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association. Stroke. 2018; 49 (3). doi: 10.1161/str.0000000000000158 . | Open in Read by QxMD
  10. Walls R, Hockberger R, Gausche-Hill M. Rosen's Emergency Medicine. Elsevier Health Sciences ; 2018
  11. Breu AC, Axon RN. Acute Treatment of Hypertensive Urgency. Journal of Hospital Medicine. 2018 . doi: 10.12788/jhm.3086 . | Open in Read by QxMD