Malignant hypertension is blood pressure that is so high that it is actually causing damage to organs, particularly in the nervous system, the cardiovascular system, and/or the kidneys. One type of such damage is called papilledema, a condition in which the optic nerve leading to the eye becomes dangerously swollen, threatening vision.
This is a serious condition that requires immediate care. Rapid treatment can prevent long-term problems. Left untreated, damage from malignant hypertension occurs quickly and can be severe, involving organ damage to blood vessels, the eyes, heart, spleen, kidneys, and brain. In particular,
may develop since the blood vessels inside the kidneys are very sensitive to high blood pressure.
Cardiovascular System and Kidneys
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In addition to having
high blood pressure, medical conditions leading to the development of malignant hypertension include:
History of kidney disorders or failure.Taking certain drugs or medications, including cocaine, amphetamines, monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), and oral contraceptives.History of collagen vascular diseases.
Pregnant women with
Pheochromocytoma.Spinal cord disorders.Coarctation or dissection of the aorta.Renal artery stenosis or narrowing of the arteries to the kidneys.Missing doses of prescribed antihypertensive medications, particularly beta-blockers or clonidine, which can cause a rebound effect. Medication noncompliance is the most common reason for hypertensive emergencies.
Malignant hypertensive is more common in men, African Americans, and in smokers. You are more likely to develop malignant hypertension if you have already have essential hypertension—high blood pressure of 140/90 or higher.
Malignant hypertension produces noticeable symptoms, including: Chest painDifficulty breathingHeadacheVisual problemsNausea and vomitingNumbness/weakness of the legs, arms, face
In particular, malignant hypertension can lead to a condition called hypertensive encephalopathy. Symptoms of this condition include
headache, vomiting, blurry vision with papilledema, mental changes like
anxiety, confusion, fatigue, and seizure.
If you experience any of the above symptoms, do not assume it is due to malignant hypertension. These symptoms may be caused by other health conditions, including a
or other less serious disorders. If you experience any one of them, call for emergency medical services right away.
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. Your blood pressure readings will probably be very high. Readings will be taken in both arms, while lying down and while standing up. A careful stethoscope exam of your heart and a detailed neurological exam will be performed. An eye exam may show signs of high blood pressure, including swelling of the optic nerve or bleeding inside the eye.
Tests may include the following: Blood tests and urine testsChest x-rayEchocardiogram or ultrasound of the heart to look for heart damageEKG
to look at the heart’s electrical functioning
Renal duplex or
test of the kidney's arteries to look for blockage
Since malignant hypertension is a medical emergency, treatment needs to be received quickly. Treatment options include the following:
IV high blood pressure medications—The specific medication will be chosen based on your specific situation, including whether you are suffering from damage to your kidneys or other organs. Possible medications may include:
Sodium nitroprusside or nitroglycerinBeta-blockersHydralazineLabetalolVasotec and ACE-inhibitorOral high blood pressure medicines once blood pressure has been lowered from dangerous levelsDialysis
To help reduce your chance of developing malignant hypertension: Frequently check your blood pressure levelsReport any sustained high blood pressure to your healthcare providerTake all prescribed high blood pressure medication regularly and avoid missing doses
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Last reviewed September 2016 by Michael J. Fucci, DO, FACC
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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