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Hypertensive emergencies have become less frequent in recent years but still require prompt recognition and aggressive but careful management. A spectrum of urgent presentations exists, and the appropriate therapeutic approach varies accordingly.

Hypertensive urgencies are situations in which blood pressure must be reduced within a few hours. These include patients with asymptomatic severe hypertension (systolic blood pressure greater than 220 mm Hg or diastolic pressure greater than 125 mm Hg that persists after a period of observation) and those with optic disk edema (eFigure 11–3), progressive target-organ complications, and severe perioperative hypertension. Elevated blood pressure levels alone—in the absence of symptoms of new or progressive target-organ damage—rarely require emergency therapy. Parenteral drug therapy is not usually required; partial reduction of blood pressure with relief of symptoms is the goal. Effective oral agents are clonidine, captopril, and slow-release nifedipine.

eFigure 11–3.

Acute papilledema. A: Optic disk swelling with cotton-wool spots and hemorrhages. B: Retinal exudates. (Reproduced, with permission, from Riordan-Eva P, Augsburger JJ. Vaughan & Asbury's General Ophthalmology, 19th ed. McGraw-Hill, 2018.)

Hypertensive emergencies require substantial reduction of blood pressure within 1 hour to avoid the risk of serious morbidity or death. Although blood pressure is usually strikingly elevated (diastolic pressure greater than 130 mm Hg), the correlation between pressure and end-organ damage is often poor. It is the presence of critical multiple end-organ injury that determines the seriousness of the emergency and the approach to treatment. Emergencies include hypertensive encephalopathy (headache, irritability, confusion, and altered mental status due to cerebrovascular spasm), hypertensive nephropathy (hematuria, proteinuria, and acute kidney injury due to arteriolar necrosis and intimal hyperplasia of the interlobular arteries), intracranial hemorrhage, aortic dissection, preeclampsia-eclampsia, pulmonary edema, unstable angina, or myocardial infarction. Encephalopathy or nephropathy accompanying hypertensive retinopathy (eFigure 11–3) has historically been called malignant hypertension, but the therapeutic approach is identical to that used in other hypertensive emergencies.

Parenteral therapy is indicated in most hypertensive emergencies, especially if encephalopathy is present. The initial goal in hypertensive emergencies is to reduce the pressure by no more than 25% (within minutes to 1 or 2 hours) and then toward a level of 160/100 mm Hg within 2–6 hours. Excessive reductions in pressure may precipitate coronary, cerebral, or renal ischemia. To avoid such declines, the use of agents that have a predictable, dose-dependent, transient, and progressive antihypertensive effect is preferable (Table 11–15). In that regard, the use of sublingual or oral fast-acting nifedipine preparations is best avoided.

Table 11–15.Treatment of hypertensive emergency depending on primary site of end-organ damage. See Table 11–16 for dosages.

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