What is Sickle Cell Crisis?

People who have sickle cell anemia tend to have painful bouts of episodes known as sickle cell crisis. This occurs when the sickle-shaped red blood cells block the blood vessels. Due to this blockage, tissues do not receive sufficient oxygen and blood and cause pain. A sickle cell crisis may damage the tissues and also lead to organ failure. Immediate treatment is needed or a sickle cell crisis can prove to be fatal and life-threatening.

Signs & Symptoms of Sickle Cell Crisis

Symptoms of sickle cell crisis depend on the region of the body where the blood flow is blocked and can differ from episode to episode of the crisis. Some of the common symptoms experienced include:

Signs & Symptoms of Sickle Cell Crisis

  • Pain.
  • Fever.
  • Fatigue or weakness.
  • Headache
  • Pain and swelling in the abdomen.
  • Priapism (painful and erect penis).
  • Tachycardia (fast heartbeats).
  • Shortness of breath.

Causes of Sickle Cell Crisis

Given below are some of the causes which trigger sickle cell crisis:

  • Viral infections, such as flu or the common cold can cause sickle cell crisis.
  • Low levels of oxygen due to rigorous exercise, flying, or high altitude.
  • Dehydration.
  • Surgery or other medical procedures or giving birth.
  • Getting cold or rapidly shifting from warm atmosphere to cold.
  • Experiencing strong emotions, such as depression or anger.

Treatment of Sickle Cell Crisis

  • Medicines or pain killers such as acetaminophen are given to decrease the pain as well as fever associated with sickle cell crisis. Overdosage can cause liver damage. So, use it with caution.
  • NSAIDs such as ibuprofen, naproxen helps not only in decreasing the pain, but also any associated swelling in sickle cell crisis. NSAIDs, however, have some serious side effects, so should be taken with caution and under your doctor’s guidance. Side effects include: bleeding in the stomach or kidney problems in some patients. If you are also taking a blood thinner medicine, then it is advisable to consult your doctor whether the NSAIDs are safe for you.
  • Other medicines, such as antibiotics can also be prescribed to prevent bacterial infection or in helping to breathe more easily.
  • IV fluids are given for treating dehydration. They also help in reducing the sickling of RBCs.
  • A blood transfusion can also be done to replace blood with RBCs which are not sickle shaped.
  • Supplemental oxygen is given to increase the oxygen levels in the blood and to ease breathing.
  • Surgery may be required to remove a part of the spleen.

Prevention of Sickle Cell Crisis

  • Take your daily dosage of minerals and vitamins regularly, as folic acid helps in preventing blood vessel problems associated with sickle cell anemia and zinc helps in decreasing the frequency of pain linked to sickle cell crisis.
  • Take adequate rest and do not overdo exercise and other physical activities. Whenever an attack of sickle cell crisis comes, make sure to rest adequately. Slowly increase your activity and follow a mild and regular exercise regime. Avoid physical activities which can cause trauma or injury, such as football.
  • Keep yourself hydrated by drinking plenty of liquids, as dehydration increases the risk of sickle cell crisis. Consult your doctor on the amount of fluid intake for you.
  • Do not shift quickly from a warm atmosphere to a cold place. Keep yourself warm in the winter. Avoid swimming in cold water.
  • Quit smoking if you are a smoker and also cut down on your alcohol intake, as both of these increase the risk for a sickle cell crisis. Smoking also delays healing after any treatment. Ask your doctor regarding any help with quitting cigarettes and alcohol.
  • Keep yourselves up-to-date on vaccinations, as they will help in preventing a viral infection which can lead to a sickle cell crisis. Get yearly flu shots; and vaccines for pneumonia every 5 years.

Written, Edited or Reviewed By:


Last Modified On: June 24, 2015

Pain Assist Inc.

Pramod Kerkar
  Note: Information provided is not a substitute for physician, hospital or any form of medical care. Examination and Investigation is necessary for correct diagnosis.

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