When Is High Blood Pressure an Emergency?

  • High blood pressure comes with chest pain, back pain, and vision changes are called hypertensive emergencies.
  • Hypertensive emergencies require immediate medical attention.
  • People with high blood pressure who stops taking their blood pressure medicines are at higher risk of experiencing a hypertensive emergency.

A silent killer

High blood pressure is often called the silent killer because it has no signs but can greatly increase heart attack and stroke risk.

According to Stephen J. Huot, MD, Ph.D., professor, associate dean, and Yale School of Medicine/Yale New Haven Hospital’s graduate medical education director, hypertensive emergency refers to high blood pressure that causes potentially life-threatening symptoms.

What is a hypertensive emergency?

A high blood pressure reading of 180/120 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg), or higher, that comes with chest pain, back pain, numbness or weakness, or vision changes, might indicate a hypertensive emergency.

According to Dr. Huot, these symptoms may indicate end-organ damage, where the blood vessels in the brain, heart, kidneys, and aorta are injured due to untreated high blood pressure. It can cause stroke, heart attack, and kidney failure.

End-organ damage due to a hypertensive emergency has the following symptoms:

  • Passing out
  • Memory loss
  • Eye damage
  • Rupture of the aorta
  • Chest pain
  • Fluid accumulation in the lungs
  • Preeclampsia

Symptoms of hypertensive emergency that don’t indicate end-organ damage include:

  • Severe headache
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Nosebleeds
  • Anxiety

Are you at risk for a high blood pressure emergency?

According to research presented at the 2020 meeting of the American Heart Association, these are the risk factors for a hypertensive emergency:

  • Male sex
  • Advancing age
  • Diabetes
  • High cholesterol levels
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Medication interactions

These emergencies usually happen when a person stops taking their medicines for blood pressure, says Dr. Huot.

Treating and preventing a high blood pressure emergency

Intravenous blood pressure-lowering medications are used to treat hypertensive emergencies and any end-organ damage that comes with it, says Dr. Huot, and it requires emergency medical attention. Dr. Guy L. Mintz, director of cardiovascular health and lipidology at Northwell Health’s Sandra Atlas Bass Heart Hospital in Manhasset, New York, says the condition can be prevented through regular medical check-ups, blood pressuring monitoring at home, at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise every day, a proper diet without added salt, and maintaining a healthy weight.

What is hypertension urgency?

A hypertensive crisis can be classified as either urgent or emergency. They are identified according to evidence of end-organ damage. Urgent hypertensive crisis is blood pressure that is extremely high without apparent end-organ damage yet, according to Dr. Huot. The condition does not require hospitalization.

According to the American Heart Association, if your numbers are 180/120 or greater with no symptoms, wait about five minutes and retake your blood pressure. If the readings are still high, talk to your doctor about the appropriate steps you have to take.

Source: Reader’s Digest