Updated on July 9, 2018. Medical content reviewed by Dr. Joseph Rosado, MD, M.B.A, Chief Medical Officer
Sickle cell anemia is an inherited condition that causes red blood cells to become rigid, stiff and crescent or “sickle” shaped. Healthy red blood cells are round, flexible and can easily move through blood vessels to distribute much-needed oxygen throughout the body.
The irregularly shaped blood cells produced by those with sickle cell anemia can slow or block blood flow, meaning the body doesn’t get an adequate amount of oxygen. Another symptom that can arise in patients with this condition is severe bouts of pain caused by several possible complications.
There’s no cure for sickle cell anemia. However, because of its powerful analgesic effects, medical marijuana could be a course of treatment to those suffering from chronic pain as a side effect.
Because of the irregular shape of blood cells in those with sickle cell anemia, a common side effect of the condition is congestion of the circulatory system, which is called a sickle cell crisis. The crescent-shaped blood cells can block blood flow in the tiny blood vessels in any part of the body. This leads to four patterns of sickle cell crisis, depending on where in the body it occurs:
These attacks cause patients to experience severe pain in specific parts of the body, which can last anywhere from a few hours to days. While not everyone with the condition experiences these painful events, some patients suffer from a dozen or more sickle cell crises a year. When a crisis becomes too painful, patients often need to be hospitalized.
Aside from sickle cell crises, this condition can cause chronic pain and other painful complications to patients due to the side effects it has on their body, such as:
Because of the painful symptoms caused by sickle cell anemia, one of the most important things doctors attempt to do for patients is help them manage their pain. They mostly do this by recommending over-the-counter medicine or prescribing pain-relieving medications.
Long-term use of pain medication can lead to several medical complications, with the most dangerous being drug dependency. Too often, patients become so dependent on prescription pain medications that they develop a tolerance, meaning they need to take more pain meds to feel their effects. Because of this, many patients become addicted to prescription pain medications.
A strong case can be made for treating sickle cell anemia-related pain with medical marijuana. The cannabinoids found in cannabis have intense analgesic effects, especially THC and CBD. That’s why marijuana is approved in states throughout the U.S. to treat disorders that cause chronic pain.
In fact, in 2005, a questionnaire study was published out of Central Middlesex Hospital in London which interviewed 31 patients who used marijuana to treat their chronic pain caused by sickle cell disease. The report concluded cannabis could be a viable treatment for the pain associated with sickle cell disease.
Medical marijuana not only blocks neural pain receptors, but it also helps treat inflammation, another side effect of the condition. And with very few negative side effects, cannabis is a strong alternative to pain-relieving medications.
If you have chronic pain from sickle cell anemia, you could qualify for a medical marijuana card in your state. Contact a doctor near you so they can assess your condition and answer any questions you may have about compassionate cannabis medications.