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Hypertensive Encephalopathy Treatment & Management

  • Author: Irawan Susanto, MD, FACP; Chief Editor: Michael R Pinsky, MD, CM, Dr(HC), FCCP, MCCM  more...
Updated: Aug 16, 2016

Approach Considerations

In patients without hypertension, cerebral autoregulation preserves a relatively constant cerebral blood flow (CBF) at a mean arterial pressure (MAP) range of 60-90 mm Hg. In chronically hypertensive patients, autoregulation is altered and shifted upward to maintain a relatively constant CBF at a higher MAP range.

When therapy is initiated, it is important to consider the baseline blood pressure in order to avoid excessive blood pressure reduction and prevent cerebral ischemia. It is usually safe to reduce MAP by 25% and to lower the diastolic blood pressure to 100-110 mm Hg.

Acute monitoring in an intensive care unit (ICU) with arterial blood pressure monitoring is required for adequate titration of pharmacologic agents and monitoring of end-organ function. Potential complications of medical therapy (eg, overzealous reduction in blood pressure and adverse effects or toxicity of pharmacologic therapy) must be watched for.

Deterioration of clinical status despite therapy warrants immediate and further investigation into other possible etiologies or reevaluation of therapy for worsening hypertensive encephalopathy.


Pharmacologic Therapy

Pharmacologic agents selected for use in hypertensive encephalopathy should have few or no adverse effects on the central nervous system (CNS). Avoid agents such as clonidine, reserpine, and methyldopa. Although the clinical impact of diazoxide has not been determined, this agent is avoided because of the impact of decreased CBF. An increasing number of authorities are considering labetalol, nicardipine, and esmolol as preferred initial agents.

Nicardipine is a second-generation dihydropyridine-derivative calcium channel blocker, which has high vascular selectivity and strong cerebral and coronary vasodilatory activity. It has been shown to increase stroke volume and coronary blood flow.[9]

Labetalol provides a steady consistent drop in blood pressure without compromising CBF. It is frequently used as initial therapy. Because of its nonselective beta-blocking properties, labetalol should be avoided in severe reactive airway disease and cardiogenic shock.

Nitroglycerin has been used to provide a rapid reduction in elevated blood pressure complicating myocardial ischemia. The reduction in blood pressure may be severe and can cause further complications due to venodilatory effects in volume-contracted individuals.

Nitroprusside sodium and hydralazine pose a theoretical risk of intracranial shunting of blood. Accordingly, these agents should be avoided in patients suspected of having increased intracranial pressure (ICP), because the potential intracerebral shunting of blood can increase the ICP. Hydralazine has a limited role in this setting, owing to reflex tachycardia, and it should not be used in patients with suspected coronary artery disease (CAD). Diuretics should also not be used in these patients unless there is clear evidence of volume overload. This is due to pressure natriuresis that occurs and leaves these patients volume depleted. Volume repletion by itself can sometimes lower the blood pressure.[10]

If neurologic deterioration worsens with therapy, it is necessary to reconsider the extent of blood pressure reduction or to consider alternate diagnoses.


Acute Inpatient Monitoring

Acute inpatient ICU monitoring with arterial blood pressure monitoring is required for adequate titration of pharmacologic agents. Routinely perform neurologic reassessment to monitor signs of deterioration due to inadequate treatment, evaluation the progression of a neurologic insult, watch for overzealous reduction of blood pressure, or assess a possible alternative cause of the clinical presentation.

Quickly and effectively treat severe hypertension to avoid progression to coma and death. If invasive monitoring is not immediately available, initiate alternative therapy with agents that do not require close monitoring until a monitored situation becomes available.



Recommend lifestyle modifications, including weight reduction to decrease the patient’s body mass index (BMI) to less than 27, moderation of alcohol and sodium intake, increasing physical activity, and avoidance of tobacco products.

Discharge patients on antihypertensives that were effective in maintaining an adequate blood pressure range during hospitalization. Emphasize the importance of adhering to antihypertensive therapy and scheduling reassessment at regular intervals to modify failing regimens.


Long-Term Monitoring

Because hypertension is a chronic problem, regularly reassessment is vital. Adequate control of hypertension is essential in preventing the progression of target-organ disease. High blood pressure has been associated with a rapid rate of cognitive decline and an increased risk of cardiac and neurologic events.

To guide the formulation of a more effective treatment plan, document prior hypertensive medication regimens that have failed.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Irawan Susanto, MD, FACP Clinical Professor of Medicine, Director of Pulmonary Consultation and Procedures, Divisions of Interventional Pulmonology and Critical Care, University of California, Los Angeles, David Geffen School of Medicine

Irawan Susanto, MD, FACP is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Physicians-American Society of Internal Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Michael R Pinsky, MD, CM, Dr(HC), FCCP, MCCM Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Bioengineering, Cardiovascular Disease, Clinical and Translational Science and Anesthesiology, Vice-Chair of Academic Affairs, Department of Critical Care Medicine, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine

Michael R Pinsky, MD, CM, Dr(HC), FCCP, MCCM is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Chest Physicians, Association of University Anesthetists, European Society of Intensive Care Medicine, American College of Critical Care Medicine, American Heart Association, American Thoracic Society, Shock Society, Society of Critical Care Medicine

Disclosure: Received income in an amount equal to or greater than $250 from: Masimo<br/>Received honoraria from LiDCO Ltd for consulting; Received intellectual property rights from iNTELOMED for board membership; Received honoraria from Edwards Lifesciences for consulting; Received honoraria from Masimo, Inc for board membership.

Additional Contributors

Najia Huda, MD Assistant Professor, Wayne State University School of Medicine; Director of MICU, Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care, Detroit Receiving Hospital

Najia Huda, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Chest Physicians, American Thoracic Society, Society of Critical Care Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Ryan C Chang, MD Consulting Staff, Department of Internal Medicine, Divisions of Pulmonary and Critical Care, Kaiser Permanente San Francisco

Ryan C Chang, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Chest Physicians and American Thoracic Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Oleh Wasyl Hnatiuk, MD Program Director, National Capital Consortium, Pulmonary and Critical Care, Walter Reed Army Medical Center; Associate Professor, Department of Medicine, Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences

Oleh Wasyl Hnatiuk, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Chest Physicians, American College of Physicians, and American Thoracic Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Medscape Reference Salary Employment

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Papilledema. Note the swelling of the optic disc, with blurred margins.
Hypertensive retinopathy. Note the flame-shaped hemorrhages, soft exudates, and early disc blurring.
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