What Is a Hypertensive Emergency?

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  • Written By: Meshell Powell
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 18 June 2019
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A hypertensive emergency occurs when blood pressure levels become so high that organ damage or a stroke may occur. It is imperative that the patient's blood pressure is brought down to a safe level in order to prevent possible life-threatening complications. Possible symptoms of a hypertensive emergency include chest pain, shortness of breath, or headaches. The patient will usually be hospitalized and given medications through an IV in an effort to reduce blood pressure levels and prevent severe complications. Any time a hypertensive emergency is suspected, immediate medical attention should be attained so that a proper diagnosis can be made and an individualized treatment plan can be implemented.

While the development of a hypertensive emergency is a relatively rare occurrence, it can prove to be fatal, sometimes within a matter of minutes. There are a variety of potential causes for this type of medical crisis, including but not limited to kidney failure, the use of certain medications, or undiagnosed or untreated high blood pressure. Heart attack, stroke, or the rupture of the primary artery to the heart, known as the aorta, may also lead to a hypertensive emergency.


The symptoms of a hypertensive emergency vary from one patient to another and may range from mild to severe. Regardless of the severity, any of these symptoms should be reported to a doctor for further medical evaluation. Some of the most common signs of a hypertensive emergency include chest pain, nausea, and shortness of breath. A sudden and severe headache may occur, often causing visual disturbances or confusion. In some cases, the patient may begin to have seizures or suffer a partial or complete loss of consciousness.

Treatment for a hypertensive emergency typically begins with efforts to lower the blood pressure. A small catheter, known as an IV, is inserted into a vein, usually in the arm. Medications are then introduced directly into the bloodstream through the IV in an effort to quickly reduce the blood pressure to a healthier level. If necessary, fluids can also be given through this IV, preventing the need for additional needle sticks.

After blood pressure has been stabilized, additional tests may be performed in an effort to determine the exact cause of the emergency situation. Any underlying disease processes are then treated, thus lowering the risks of a repeated episode. Any damage to the organs is assessed and treated before the patient is allowed to return home from the hospital.



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