Sickle Cell Disease Pain: What Helps

Pain is a common problem for people with sickle cell disease. It happens when the sickle-shaped red blood cells that cause the condition get stuck in small blood vessels and block blood flow. That can cause a pain episode or crisis to start suddenly, usually in the lower back, arms, legs, chest, and belly. For others, health problems from sickle cell disease can cause pain that lasts longer.

But no matter the type of sickle cell pain you have, there are many options that can help you find relief. Talk to your doctor about making a plan to manage your pain.

How to Manage a Pain Crisis

Most of the time, over-the-counter pain medicines like aspirin, acetaminophen, or ibuprofen can ease pain from an episode. (People under age 19 should not take aspirin, though.) There are some other things that may help, too:

  • Drink water or other fluids when your symptoms start. Staying hydrated can help you head off the worst of an attack.
  • Use a heating pad or take a warm bath.
  • Try a massage, acupuncture, or relaxation techniques.
  • Do something to take your mind off your pain. Watch TV, listen to music, or talk on the phone.

Most people can handle a pain crisis on their own at home. But if the pain doesn’t go away or is severe, you or your child may have to go to the hospital for more treatment. Your doctor may need to give you fluids through an IV, or she may prescribe more powerful painkillers.

Many doctors help people with sickle cell disease come up with a plan to manage pain episodes. It can guide you through specific steps to find pain relief on your own. It can also help other doctors, nurses, or paramedics know how to help you during an emergency. Ask your doctor to help you create one before an attack.

One drug, called hydroxyurea, may keep pain episodes from happening as often for children and adults who take it every day. Scientists are also studying another drug, L-glutamine, to see if it can help people have shorter or fewer hospital visits for sickle cell pain. Ask your doctor if either drug is right for you or your child.

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Help for Chronic Pain

The long-term effects of sickle cell disease can cause painful problems, especially for adults. For example, poor blood flow can damage bones and joints and cause pain.

To help you with chronic pain, your doctor may prescribe painkillers to take every day. She may also recommend physical therapy or orthopedic devices to support your back or limbs. And in some cases, doctors may recommend surgery to correct a problem that’s hurting you, or temporarily numb a nerve to give you relief.

Find Support for Sickle Cell Pain

Living with sickle cell disease can be hard, especially for children. People who are in pain often may have problems with anxiety and depression. They may feel singled out or left out of things others enjoy because of their condition. These feelings can add to other problems the disease can cause.

If you feel stressed, sad, or overwhelmed, counseling or psychotherapy may be able to help. Talking about your problems with a mental health professional can help you find reliable, healthy ways to handle pain and other challenges of sickle cell disease.

Also, ask your doctor or nurse about support groups where you can connect with other people and families living with sickle cell disease. Together, you can share what life is like with the condition, and get advice on pain relief and other challenges.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on March 6, 2018

Sources

SOURCES:

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: “Sickle Cell Disease.”

CDC: “Sickle Cell Disease - Complications and Treatments.”

Pediatric Blood and Cancer: “Impact of individualized pain plan on the emergency management of children with sickle cell disease.”

Current Opinions in Hematology: “Acute pain in children and adults with sickle cell disease: management in the absence of evidence-based guidelines.”

American Family Physician: “Management of Sickle Cell Disease: Recommendations from the 2014 Expert Panel Report.”

News release, U.S. Food and Drug Administration: “FDA approves hydroxyurea for treatment of pediatric patients with sickle cell anemia.”

Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine: “Management of pain in sickle-cell disease.”

Blood: “Evolution of Chronic Pain in Sickle Cell Disease.”

Child Psychiatry and Human Development: “Symptoms of depression and anxiety in adolescents with sickle cell disease.”

Journal of the National Medical Association: “Health-Related Stigma in Young Adults With Sickle Cell Disease.”

British Journal of Haematology : “Psychological complications in sickle cell disease.”

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