Pediatric hypertension is increasing in incidence, but remains greatly underrecognized, despite its severe long-term health consequences. Often discovered as incidental to another complaint, pediatric patients with hypertension may be asymptomatic but with markedly abnormal blood pressure, or they may have a true hypertensive emergency. This issue provides strategies to ensure that the child with asymptomatic hypertension receives appropriate screening and referrals, and outlines a systematic approach for the evaluation and treatment of the critically ill child who presents with symptoms of severe hypertension.
A 5-year-old girl presents to the ED with a clavicle deformity after falling at the playground. You are almost ready to discharge her after confirmatory x-ray and sling placement when you note that her blood pressure is 150/90 mm Hg. Realizing that oscillometric devices may be inaccurate, you measure her blood pressure with a manual manometer, and it is 170/100 mm Hg. On further questioning, you learn that she has no significant medical history and no family history of hypertension. What defines hypertension in a child this age? Are additional tests needed? Do you need to treat this level of hypertension?
The following week, you are back in the ED when a medic calls ahead to say that they are on their way with a 16-year-old boy with altered mental status. She reports his vital signs, and you ask her to repeat the blood pressure, which she confirms is 140/80 mm Hg. You wonder whether this patient’s blood pressure is the cause of his altered mental status, or is there something else going on? Should you treat hypertension in this patient the same way you would in an adult? How aggressive do you need to be with lowering his blood pressure? Should you advise the medic to give medications prehospital prior to ED arrival?
Your string of shifts is almost over when you are called into a room for an infant with respiratory distress. You’ve just seen 4 kids with upper respiratory infections, and you feel confident that this is the scenario. The 4-month-old, who was born at 26 weeks’ gestation, shows mild-to-moderate respiratory distress; however, there has been no viral prodrome. A chest x-ray demonstrates moderate pulmonary edema. Back in the room, you note that her blood pressure is 110/80 mm Hg, and you begin to wonder whether that is high for an infant. What additional testing—if any—is necessary? Do you need to intervene? Is there anything specific you should be worried about?
The prevalence of pediatric hypertension is increasing and, while the exact the number is unknown, it is estimated to affect up to 5% of children in the United States.1,2 From the emergency clinician’s perspective, pediatric hypertension generally presents in 2 forms: (1) the otherwise asymptomatic child with elevated blood pressure, and (2) the child with a true pediatric hypertensive emergency. It can be challenging for the emergency clinician to know whether the asymptomatic patient with elevated blood pressure warrants evaluation in the acute care or the primary care setting. The combination of cumbersome tables for defining hypertension and uncertainty regarding optimal treatment hinders clinician identification and treatment of pediatric hypertension. While measurable pathology is found in many children with hypertension (left ventricular hypertrophy, increased carotid artery intimal thickness, and cognitive dysfunction), it is uncertain whether hypertension in children results in increased cardiovascular risk as adults.3-8 The lack of data regarding long-term risks and benefits is a barrier to action for clinicians in both the emergency department (ED) and in the primary care setting. In contrast, a hypertensive emergency requires emergent management in the ED. Managing a pediatric hypertensive emergency with the associated high rate of morbidity and mortality can be a challenge for the emergency clinician, especially without pediatric subspecialty support. This issue of Pediatric Emergency Medicine Practice provides evidenced-based recommendations for managing children with elevated blood pressure who are asymptomatic upon presentation to the ED and reviews treatment options for children with hypertensive emergencies.
A search was performed in PubMed using the following search terms: pediatric hypertension, hypertensive emergencies, pediatric hypertensive emergencies, and posterior reversible encephalopathy syndrome. The search resulted in 166 articles from 2000 to the present. There were numerous case reports, retrospective reviews, review articles, and expert opinion pieces. The major guidelines from Europe, Canada, and the United States were reviewed, compared, and contrasted. No guidelines were found in either the National Guideline Clearinghouse or the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence databases. One Cochrane review examined the long-term use of antihypertensive medications in children.
As with much of pediatric literature, there is a paucity of strong evidence in screening, identification, or treatment for hypertension; much of the data are based on expert opinions from subspecialists. In 2004, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute of the United States National Institutes of Health released their final guideline on identification and treatment of hypertension. This work was then taken over by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which released their update to the guidelines in 2017. The majority of the recommendations in that publication ranged from weak-to-moderate, with few strong recommendations.
As the incidence of pediatric hypertension increases, there is increasing effort to develop evidence-based guidelines. Current challenges include: (1) age-based definitions of the disease are cumbersome, which leads to underrecognition; (2) the consequences of pediatric hypertension are not always consistent or clear; (3) the risks and benefits of long-term treatment for hypertension are still not well understood; and (4) it is difficult to perform prospective randomized controlled trials for hypertensive emergencies, as they are relatively rare.
For this review, recommendations are based on the available evidence; when that evidence is expert opinion, it is noted.
2. “This child’s blood pressure is very high! I’m worried about giving IV medications, so I think I’ll just give a small dose of oral nifedipine. That should be safe.”
While easy to give because it is an oral agent, nifedipine can cause an excessive drop in blood pressure, altered mental status, and even dysrhythmia. While there are no studies showing tissue ischemia (as has been shown in the adult literature), there are better and more predictable medications that should be used.
5. “His oscillatory blood pressure was high, but I’m sure it’s just because it was an automated blood pressure reading. The child can follow up for another blood pressure evaluation at his pediatrician’s office.”
While oscillatory blood pressure machines are not as specific for hypertension as a manual blood pressure measurement, they are sensitive enough to be used for screening purposes. Elevated blood pressure measurements should not be ignored, but should be validated with auscultatory technique, preferentially in the right upper extremity as well as a lower extremity.
9. “This child has high blood pressure. I can’t manage this chronic problem in the ED.”
For some children, hypertension is an acute issue, especially in younger children and/or in the setting of stage 2 hypertension, and it is one that requires urgent evaluation and referral. Despite increasing data regarding pediatric hypertension, it can still go underdiagnosed in primary care. It is important to recognize, evaluate, and educate about high blood pressure, even if therapy might not be instituted in the ED.
Evidence-based medicine requires a critical appraisal of the literature based upon study methodology and number of patients. Not all references are equally robust. The findings of a large, prospective, randomized, and blinded trial should carry more weight than a case report.
To help the reader judge the strength of each reference, pertinent information about the study is included in bold type following the reference, where available. In addition, the most informative references cited in this paper, as determined by the author, are highlighted.
Emily MacNeill, MD
Richard M. Cantor, MD, FAAP, FACEP; Emily Rose, MD, FAAP, FAAEM, FACEP
March 2, 2019
April 1, 2022
4 AMA PRA Category 1 Credits, 4 ACEP Category I Credits, 4 AAFP Prescribed Credits, 4 AOA Category 2A or 2B Credits. Specialty CME Credits: Included as part of the 4 credits, this CME activity is eligible for 1 Pharmacology CME credit, subject to your state and institutional approval.
Date of Original Release: March 1, 2019. Date of most recent review: February 15, 2019. Termination date: March 1, 2022.
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