Sickle cell anemia is a chronic genetic condition that affects the look and function of red blood cells. It can cause some serious complications, as well as creating frequent “pain crises” that can be debilitating. In recent years, scientists have found that cannabis products work well in targeting this kind of pain, providing real relief from inflammation and sensitivity. Here’s what we know about this potential treatment option.
Anemia is a condition that affects the red blood cells. Red blood cells carry oxygen from the lungs to other parts of the body. In that sense, they are responsible for keeping alive every organ we have.
People with anemia have malfunctioning red blood cells; they may have the wrong shape or be missing essential nutrients, or there may simply be too few of them.
As a result, their blood cells can’t bring oxygen to the organs as well as they should. This leads to a host of symptoms, including dizziness, brain fog, deep fatigue, shortness of breath and pale skin.
The different types of anemia
Although all forms of anemia have roughly similar symptoms, there are a few different types, with different causes.
Anemia from iron deficiency is one of the most common types of anemia. It’s caused by a lack of iron in the body, which affects the production of red blood cells. You can suffer from it if you don’t get enough iron in your diet, if you’re pregnant or if you lose a lot of blood during your period.
Anemia from vitamin deficiency is rarer, and results from a deficiency in folate and vitamin B12.
Anemia can also result from diseases that affect bone marrow, such as myelofibrosis and leukemia. This is because red blood cells are made in the bone marrow.
Certain inflammatory diseases can slow down the production of red blood cells. You may suffer from anemia if you have rheumatoid arthritis, cancer or Crohn’s disease, among other conditions.
Sickle cell anemia is a genetic condition that causes the red blood cells to have an unusual, sickle shape. As a result, they die faster and don’t transport oxygen as well. They may also get stuck in blood vessels, which could cause some serious complications. This condition is what our article will focus on.
What is sickle cell anemia?
Our bodies produce round-shaped red blood cells that carry oxygen throughout the whole body and transport CO2 back. But people who are born with sickle cell anemia also have red blood cells that are misshapen: they have an abnormal sickle shape, which affects their normal functioning.
Those sickle-shaped cells can’t transport oxygen as well, they have a shorter lifespan, and they can even get stuck in blood vessels due to their rigidity.
What are the symptoms of sickle cell anemia?
The first symptoms of sickle cell anemia usually show up during the first month of life. Although they are a bit different for everyone, they often include a combination of these issues:
- Pain crises due to sickle cells blocking blood flow
- Swelling in the hands and feet
- Slow growth during childhood and teenage years
- Eyesight degradation
The fact that there aren’t enough red blood cells to transport oxygen causes tiredness and dizziness, and can even stop people with this condition from growing up at a normal rate.
The fact that sickle cells can get stuck in blood vessels also creates some painful issues. People with this condition will usually suffer a couple of pain crises every year, when sickle cells block their blood flow, causing pain in the chest, joints and even bones. Sickle cells getting stuck in blood vessels can also cause swelling of the hands and feet as well as vision loss.
What causes sickle cell anemia?
Sickle cell anemia is a genetic disease. It is caused by a gene that tells the body to produce misshapen blood cells.
To be born with sickle cell anemia, both parents need to carry the gene. Although it can affect anyone, it is more common in certain populations, such as black people in the United States.
Can sickle cell anemia be cured?
Sickle cell anemia cannot go away on its own because it is a genetic disease. People who are born with it will need careful medical supervision for the duration of their lives. However, there are a few treatment options that can give them relief from their symptoms and prevent complications.
From a young age, people with sickle cell anemia are given regular vaccines and antibiotics to prevent them from getting an infection. When they experience pain crises, they will be given painkillers such as ibuprofen and paracetamol.
If their anemia threatens to seriously affect their life, they may be given a blood transfer. This puts more normal blood cells into their system, which can help them fight painful symptoms like dizziness and headaches.
There is a cure for sickle cell anemia, which is a bone marrow transplant. However, this is a risky procedure that also requires finding a suitable donor. As a result, most people with sickle cell anemia have to live with the condition for their whole life.
Could CBD help people with sickle cell anemia?
In 2005, a group of scientists conducted a study to find out whether adults with sickle cell anemia used cannabis, and what results they got from it. The results were impressive: they showed that over a third of the people surveyed had used cannabis in the past six months.
As reasons, they cited that it eased their pain and relaxed them. Since we know that cannabis is one of the safest and most ancient painkillers out there, this comes as no surprise. This is also encouraging because it shows that cannabis could potentially be used as a painkiller for sickle cell crises. It could replace more dangerous forms of medicines like NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) and opioids, which have heavy side effects and can be addictive.
Although cannabis has a great track record of lowering pain levels in a safe way, many people are opposed to taking it. Most forms of cannabis or marijuana contain high levels of a molecule known as THC, which has psychoactive effects. Many people enjoy these effects, but most would agree that they don’t want to enjoy them all the time. After all, getting high whenever you experience pain would mean not being able to drive a car and potentially being unable to work during the day. Not to mention, THC is not recommended for children and younger people.
As a cannabis derivative that eases pain without psychoactive effects, CBD could be a good alternative.
What is CBD?
CBD, or cannabidiol, is a cannabinoid compound found in the cannabis plant. A cannabinoid compound is a molecule that has the ability to bind with certain receptors in our bodies. Cannabinoids come from one of two places: they are either created by the body or found in cannabis.
When we introduce a cannabinoid compound like CBD into our bodies, it starts acting like the molecules that our bodies produce. It binds with receptors of the endocannabinoid system and gives this whole biological system a boost. As a result, we experience less pain, anxiety, inflammation, depression, high blood pressure, digestive issues and more.
The holistic effects of CBD make it perfect to treat a number of conditions, including:
To date, there have only been a few studies on the effects of cannabinoids on people with sickle cell disease. But they do show some promising applications of these molecules.
The benefits of cannabinoids for sickle cell anemia
In 2016, a group of scientists expanded on the 2005 study we cited earlier, studying the actual effects of cannabinoids on people with sickle cell disease. They found that cannabinoid receptors could be used to alleviate the type of neurogenic inflammation caused by sickle cell anemia.
In a mice model of sickle cell anemia, a cannabis-based medicine improved sickle cell symptoms. They experienced less pain, inflammation and overall sensitivity.
The scientists conclude that cannabinoids had potential in treating symptoms of sickle cell anemia. And although they didn’t study CBD in particular, we do know that CBD can treat pain and inflammation. This gives us good hope that CBD-based products could also be of use in treating the symptoms of this painful condition.
Can I legally buy CBD?
CBD is legal on a federal level in the United States, as long as it contains less than 0.3% THC. However, it is still prohibited by certain state laws and doesn’t have FDA approval. We encourage you to consult a physician before you start taking CBD.
How to take CBD for sickle cell anemia
Taking CBD could alleviate sickle cell anemia symptoms, particularly pain and inflammation. But how do you take it? And which products are right for you?
Because sickle cell anemia pain crises are sudden and brutal, you should go for a CBD product that’s released into the body fast. Your best options will be sublingual CBD oil drops (drops that are placed under the tongue for faster absorption), a CBD vape or a CBD transdermal patch.
CBD edible products like capsules and gummies are also very effective in treating pain, but you can expect them to take a little longer to take effect.
If you want to know how much CBD to take to get relief from sickle cell anemia pain, we would recommend consulting with a physician who specializes in medical cannabis. And if you’re taking any other forms of medication to manage your sickle cell symptoms, you’ll also need to consult a doctor before taking CBD, in order to check if there is potential for negative drug interactions.
Sickle cell anemia pain significantly worsens the quality of life of people who suffer from this condition. The most commonly prescribed substances to deal with that pain can have some serious side effects. A molecule like CBD, which has the potential to lower pain in a safe way, could be a great alternative. Research has even shown that cannabinoids have a direct impact on sickle cell anemia pain symptoms. Research on the topic is still in its early stages, but we can expect to learn more about the benefits of cannabinoids on sickle cell anemia in the coming years.
Cannabis and sickle cell anemia
2005 study on cannabis use in people with sickle cell anemia
2016 study on the effects of cannabinoids on mice with sickle cell anemia
CBD and cannabinoids for pain relief
2018 review of research on cannabinoids and pain
2012 study on the effects of CBD for pain management (inflammatory and neuropathic)
2017 review of the effects of cannabis on pain
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