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Overview of Sickle Cell Anemia

Sickle cell anemia is an inherited condition that causes red blood cells to become misshapen and sticky, preventing them from effectively carrying oxygen throughout the body. Healthy blood cells are round and flexible, designed to travel through blood vessels with ease. In sickle cell anemia, red blood cells are rigid and shaped like crescent moons. As a result, they will commonly get stuck and build up in smaller blood vessels, potentially limiting or blocking normal blood flow.

When the sickle-shaped blood cells get caught and block blood flow, the result is often sudden and severe pain that’s referred to as “pain crises.” Pain crises often come without warning. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, children with sickle cell anemia are mostly pain free between painful crises. However, adolescents and adults with the disease can suffer from chronic, ongoing pain.

Sickle cell anemia is a lifelong disease. The only potential cure is to undergo a hematopoietic stem cell transplant, which requires a well-matched donor. Therefore, treatment focus typically involves reducing symptoms and prolonging life. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute reports that the life expectancy of a person with sickle cell anemia to be 40 to 60 years.

Findings: Effects of Cannabis on Sickle Cell Anemia

Cannabis has pain-relieving properties that have long been found to be effective and it’s been used to treat pain caused by a variety of ailments and conditions2. When examining cannabis’ pain-relieving capabilities specifically for sickle-cell anemia, scientists found that medical cannabis is effective1,4. A 2005 questionnaire found that sickle cell patients that use cannabis reportedly do so to reduce pain (52%) and to induce relaxation or relieve anxiety and depression (39%)3.

Opiates are commonly used to treat the pain associated with sickle cell anemia, but the drugs sometimes have problematic side effects, including sedation, appetite loss, nausea, constipation, respiratory depression, and they’re highly addictive2. Studies have found that cannabinoids are effective at relieving pain in lower doses and have fewer side effects compared to opioids2.

Treating sickle cell anemia pain is important for reasons beyond the comfort of patients. The pain caused by sickle cell anemia is the result of vascular occlusion, tissue infarction and inflammation. Therefore, treating the painful episodes associated with sickle cell anemia with cannabis, which has been found to have anti-inflammatory properties, is important for minimizing tissue damage and for improving the patient’s overall health2.



  1. Costantino, C.M., Gupta, A., Yewdall, A.W., Dale, B.M., Devi, L.A., & Chen, B.K. (2012). Cannabinoid Receptor 2-Mediated Attenuation of CXCR4-Tropic HIV Infection in Primary CD4+ T Cells. PLoS ONE, 7(3), e33961. Retrieved from

  2. Elikkottil, J., Gupta, P., and Gupta, K. (2009, November-December). The analgesic potential of cannabinoids. Journal of Opioid Management, 5(6), 341-57. Retrieved from

  3. Howard, J., Anie, K.A., Holdcroft, A., Korn, S., and Davies, S.C. (2005, October). Cannabis use in sickle cell disease: a questionnaire study. British Journal of Haematology, 131(1), 123-8. Retrieved from

  4. Kohli, D.R., Li, Y., Khasabov, S.G., Gupta, P., Kehl, L.J., Ericson, M.E., Nguyen, J., Gupta, V., Hebbel, R.P., Simone, D.A., and Gupta, K. (2010, July 22). Pain-related behaviors and neurochemical alterations in mice expressing sickle hemoglobin: modulation by cannabinoids. Blood, 116(3), 456-65. Retrieved from

  5. Sickle Cell Anemia. (2014, June 11). Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from

  6. Signorelli, A.A., Ribeiro, S.B., Moraes-Souza, H., de Oliveira, L.F., Ribeiro, J.B., da Silva, S.H., de Oliveira, D.F., and Ribeiro, M.F. (2013). Pain measurement as part of primary healthcare of adult patients with sickle cell disease. Revista Brasilileira de Hematologia e Hemoterapia, 35(4), 272-7. Retrieved from

  7. What Is Sickle Cell Disease? (2015, June 12). National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Retrieved from

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