Malignant hypertension is a term that has been used to describe patients with elevated blood pressure (BP) and multiple complications with a poor prognosis. Today, the term hypertensive crisis is used to describe patients who present with severe BP elevations as follow:
The diagnosis can be further classified as a hypertensive emergency when severe elevation in BP is associated with end-organ damage, or hypertensive urgency when severe hypertension occurs without it. Prompt treatment of BP can prevent a hypertensive emergency and consequently, serious life-threating complications.
There are multiple causes of malignant hypertension (hypertensive crisis) including the following:
Hypertensive emergencies are unusual, with a projected incidence of 1 to 2 cases per million per year. A recent investigation showed that the estimated number of visits due to this condition and the rate per million per adult, emergency department (ED) visits have more than doubled from 2006 to 2013. Few examples include eclampsia (2%), cerebral infarction (39%), and acute pulmonary edema (25%).
Hypertensive emergencies occur when a relatively rapid elevation of BP develops in a short period. Increase in systemic vascular resistance by an increase in vasoconstriction mechanisms through renin-angiotensin activation, pressure natriuresis, hypoperfusion, and ischemia are the most common culprits of end-organ damage.
Most patients have persistently-elevated BP for years before presenting with hypertensive emergency. Initial questioning should focus on finding indicators related to end-organ damage including a headache, nausea or vomiting, visual disturbances, chest or back pain, dyspnea, orthopnea, or visual disturbances. Review all prescription and nonprescription medications, adherence, and time from the last dose. Ask about recreational drug use, such as amphetamines, cocaine, phencyclidine.
On physical exam, confirm BP on both arms using appropriately-sized blood pressure cuff. Funduscopic exam findings may include hemorrhages, exudates or papilledema. Assess for murmurs and gallops or other signs of heart failure. Look for evidence of pulmonary edema, abdominal bruits. Neurological findings can include stupor, seizures, delirium, agitation.
The history and physical examination are really important in patients presenting with a very elevated BP, or an acute rise over a previously normal baseline, even if the presenting BP is less than 180/120 mm Hg. Furthermore, the following evaluation should be performed to find the presence of end-organ damage in association with targeted clinical symptoms or signs:
It is often easiest to categorize hypertensive emergencies by the organ that is being damaged. The evaluation above can usually identify the at-risk target organ and can direct both, the target BP and the promptness with which the target is achieved.
Adequate therapy, including the choice of the medication and the BP target, changes depending on the specific hypertensive emergency and the affected organ.
It is not recommended to decrease the BP too fast or too much, as ischemic damage can occur in vascular territories that have become habituated with the elevated level of BP. For the majority of hypertensive emergencies, mean arterial pressure (MAP) should be reduced by approximately 10 to 20% within the first hour and by another 5% to 15% over the next 24 hours. This often results in a target BP of less than 180/120 mm Hg for the first hour and less than 160/110 mm Hg for the next 24 hours, but rarely less than 130/80 mm Hg during that time frame.
Common intravenous (IV) medications and doses used to treat hypertensive emergencies include:
If there is any possibility of over or underestimation of BP using frequent noninvasive cuff measurements or if the end-organ damage is life-threatening, consider arterial catheterization for precise, second-to-second measurements allowing for more careful medication titration.
The major exceptions to gradual BP lowering over the first day are:
After a suitable period, often 8 to 24 hours, of BP control at a target, oral medications are usually given, and the initial intravenous therapy is tapered and discontinued.
Multiple complications can arise when target organs are affected, including encephalopathy, intracerebral hemorrhage, acute myocardial infarction, acute heart failure, pulmonary edema, unstable angina, dissecting aortic aneurysm, acute kidney injury, and vision loss.
Most patients with severely elevated BP have no acute end-organ damage (hypertensive urgency). Nevertheless, some patients have signs and symptoms of acute, ongoing injury, which is recognized as hypertensive emergency or formerly as malignant hypertension.
It is generally not recommended to decrease the BP too quickly or too much as ischemic damage can occur in vascular territories that have become habituated with the elevated level of BP. For most hypertensive emergencies, the MAP should be reduced gradually by approximately 10 to 20% within the first hour, and by a further 5% to 15% over the next 24 hours, with a final goal of approximately 25% reduction compared with baseline.
Many patients have a poorly controlled essential or secondary hypertension. Long-term management turns out to be the primacy once the hypertensive crisis has been addressed.