Sickle cell disease (SCD) is an inherited genetic disease that affects many people; infants in the U.S. and its territories are screened for it at birth. SCD is a group of red blood cell disorders that begin to affect infants from the age of five or six months. Hemoglobin protein helps red blood cells carry oxygen throughout the body, but people who have SCD have abnormal hemoglobin S in their red blood cells. Sickle cell disease cannot be “caught” since it is not contagious. The only way to contract SCD is to inherit two abnormal hemoglobin genes – one from each parent; at least one of these two abnormal genes causes the patient’s body to create hemoglobin S. If a patient has two hemoglobin S genes, then that person has Hemoglobin SS, and sickle cell anemia. In this article we will take a look at SCD, sickle cell anemia, and the effects of cannabis on the disease and the symptoms patients have.
What is Sickle Cell Anemia?
Since Hemoglobin SS indicates sickle cell anemia, this disease is the most severe kind of SCD; hemoglobin SC, hemoglobin Sβ0 thalassemia, hemoglobin Sβ+ thalassemia, hemoglobin SD, and hemoglobin SE are all common forms of SCD. The cells in the human body require a steady oxygen supply in order to function correctly; in red blood cells, hemoglobin transports oxygen into the lungs and all the tissues in the human body. Red blood cells’ normal flat disc shape allows them to move through both large and small blood vessels to deliver oxygen where it is needed. In sickle cell red blood cells, the abnormal hemoglobin may cause stiff rods to form within the cells, resulting in a crescent or sickle shape. This new non-flexible shape prevents the blood cells from flowing smoothly through vessels, and causes them to stick to the walls of the vessels and reduce or stop the flow of blood and therefore oxygen.
What are the Symptoms of Sickle Cell Disease?
Signs of sickle cell anemia may include dark urine, yellow (jaundiced) eyes, painful foot and hand swelling, pale or anemic skin tone, stunted growth, stroke, or frequent or chronic unexplained pain episodes.
Lack of oxygen in the body tissue can cause severe pain crises which occur without warning and often require hospitalization; chronic, ongoing pain can also plague adults and teens with sickle cell disease. The disease can have even more disastrous effects later in life, as the spleen, brain, eyes, lungs, liver, heart, kidneys, penis, joints, bones, or skin are affected. Because sickle cells are inflexible, they often hemolyze – meaning that they burst from pressure – and only live 10 to 20 days, as opposed to normal red blood cells which live from 90 to 120 days on average. Because of this frequent destruction of sickle cells, the body may be unable to keep up with replacing the burst cells, resulting in low red blood cell count. This is called sickle cell anemia, and it can drastically decrease the amount of energy a person has. Sickle cell disease stays with a patient for his or her entire life, and its severity differs depending upon the person. In 1973, life expectancy for sickle cell patients was 14 years, but that has increased over the past few decades to 40 to 60 years because of medical advancements.
Is There a Cure For Sickle Cell Disease?
There is a cure for sickle cell disease, and it’s called hematopoietic stem cell transplantation, or HSCT. Hematopoietic cell transplantation (HCT) is a process which inserts stem and progenitor cells into a patient’s blood in order to create sufficient immune function in the bone marrow and blood of people with genetic disorders. HCST, then, is the use of progenitor cells from bone marrow or peripheral blood sources – this process requires a matched donor. Many people with sickle cell cannot access this cure because of their age or a lack of a well-matched donor.
Who Does Sickle Cell Anemia Affect?
About 100,000 residents of the United States have sickle cell disease, and people from African-American, Latino- or Mexican-Americans, southern European, Middle Eastern, or Asian Indian backgrounds are more at risk for the disease. Nearly 1 in 13 African-American babies in the United States are born with sickle cell trait, and 1 in 365 African-American babies are born with SCD.
How Can Cannabis Help with Sickle Cell Anemia?
Outside of the cure, which may not be available for many patients of sickle cell disease, there are “no standard treatments that cure sickle cell anemia,” according to the American Society of Hematology (ASH). Most treatments are aimed at reducing or relieving pain, preventing infections, minimizing organ damage, and controlling complications that may arise from SCD. ASH notes that stem cell transplants carry significant risks, and necessitate both a severe form of SCD and a closely-matched donor like a family member only.
Due to the acute pain caused by sickle cell disease, usually located in the lower back, legs, arms, abdomen, and chest, cannabis is a natural and effective solution for many people with the disease. Relieving pain can help SCD patients live a productive and more normal life despite their pain. Pain crises can be brought on by wide-ranging occurrences, from illness to temperature changes, to stress and dehydration. In addition, high altitudes may cause more severe pain episodes in patients.
Patients with severe anemia can suffer from shortness of breath, extreme fatigue, dizziness, and pale complexions; babies may not eat well or often seem sluggish. Acute chest pain is also a common symptom of SCD, and may result in difficulty breathing; vaporized cannabis may help relieve this pain. In a 2005 study, SCD patients answered a questionnaire that showed that 36% had used cannabis in the past year to alleviate pain and symptoms of the disease. Of the 86 patients surveyed, 52% consumed cannabis to relieve pain, and 39% consumed it to induce relaxation or reduce anxiety and depression. This month, the Minnesota Daily reported on University of Minnesota research that indicated that chronic pain in SCD patients might be helped by cannabis treatments. Kalpna Gupta, the chief researcher and associate professor of medicine at the university, noted that “cannabinoids have good outcomes in treating pain” in mice with sickle cell disease, and is moving the research to California for human trials in the near future.
If cannabis research finds that the plant has neuroprotectant properties, treatments may be able to prevent stokes in SCD patients, as well. The hope is that SCD patients will at least be able to live relatively pain-free lives with cannabis consumption, and continued research may provide even more insight into the disease and cannabis’ effects on it.
This post was originally published on March 13, 2016, it was updated on March 27, 2017.