What is a sickle cell crisis?
A sickle cell crisis is a painful episode that may begin suddenly in a person who has sickle cell disease.
A sickle cell crisis occurs when sickle-shaped red blood cells clump together and block small blood vessels that carry blood to certain organs, muscles, and bones. This causes mild to severe pain. The pain can last from hours to days. "Painful event" and "painful crisis" are other terms used to describe these episodes. Some people who have sickle cell disease have many painful events, while others have few or none.
The pain can happen in any part of the body. But the most common areas include the:
- Bones of the spine.
- Bones in the arms and legs.
How is it treated?
Treatment depends on the level of pain and how long it lasts. Sometimes, non-prescription, or over-the-counter, pain relievers such as ibuprofen can help. Other times, a person needs stronger pain relief medicine that is prescribed or given by a doctor. Some painful episodes may need IV therapy for fluids and powerful pain medicines, such as morphine, to ease the pain.
You can prepare for a crisis in advance by creating a pain management plan with your doctor. This plan should include not only the types of medicines you can take at home but also other actions you can take at home to relieve pain. Also, your plan helps you know when to call your doctor or go to a hospital.
For more information, see Sickle Cell Disease: Pain Management.
How can you prevent a crisis?
It isn't always possible to know what sets off a crisis, but triggers include dehydration, cold temperatures, infection, stress, and low oxygen intake.
You can help prevent a crisis by:
- Drinking plenty of fluids, especially before, during, and after exercise or strenuous activity and when you have a fever or infection. Drink enough so that your urine is light yellow or clear like water.
- Dressing warmly in cold weather. Try to avoid situations where you might become cold. Exposure to cold air, wind, and water may cause a crisis by triggering red blood cell sickling in exposed areas of the body.
- Exercise with care. If you exercise strenuously, rest when you feel tired, and drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration. Dehydration and reduced oxygen levels in a person's blood resulting from strenuous exercise may cause red blood cells to sickle.
- Get plenty of sleep.
- Try to reduce and manage stress in your life.
For more information, see Sickle Cell Disease: Staying Healthy.
Other Works Consulted
- Meremikwu MM, Okomo U (2011). Sickle cell disease, search date March 2010. BMJ Clinical Evidence. Available online: http://www.clinicalevidence.com.
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health (2002). The Management of Sickle Cell Disease (NIH Publication No. 02-2117). Available online: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/prof/blood/sickle/.
Current as of: November 8, 2019
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review: E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Donald Sproule, MDCM, CCFP - Family Medicine
Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine
Martin J. Gabica, MD - Family Medicine
Martin H. Steinberg, MD - Hematology