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Sickle Cell Anemia: Symptoms, Causes & Treatment

Sickle Cell Anemia
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What is Sickle Cell Anemia?

Sickle cell anemia is a blood disorder that can be passed on from parents to their children (x). People with this disorder are born with it; they do not catch it from some environmental source nor develop the disease later in life. The name of the condition comes from the C- or sickle-shaped red blood cells of people with sickle cell disease (x).

The blood has many cells, including red blood cells, which have a primary function of carrying oxygen throughout the body. These cells carry oxygen through molecules known as hemoglobin. In healthy people, hemoglobin is round, smooth and flexible, which allows red blood cells to glide through the bloodstream efficiently (x).

Sickle-like red blood cells have abnormally shaped hemoglobin, which causes them to form rods and clump together. The rigid and curved shape of the red blood cells of people with sickle cell anemia can block blood flow, which can be painful and dangerous. More than 100,000 people in the U.S. have sickle cell anemia, most of them being African American (x).

Sickle Cell Anemia Symptoms

The tissues and organs that do not experience adequate blood flow experience damage due to lack of oxygen. Tissue and organ damage can cause a wide range of symptoms, referred to as sickle cell crises. Severity may vary depending on the organs that have been affected. The symptoms of sickle cell anemia include (x):

  • Pain
  • Fatigue
  • Inflammation of the limbs
  • Bacterial infection
  • Leg ulcers
  • Liver and spleen congestion
  • Lung and heart tissue damage
  • Eye damage
  • Bone infarcts

Symptoms — Infants and Young Children

Some symptoms of sickle cell anemia, including bone infarcts and crises pain, occur at any age while others typically occur in specific age groups. The symptoms of sickle cell anemia are more apparent during the first year of life (x). Infants and young children may experience a whole range of symptoms, including (x):

  • Bacterial infections
  • Painful swelling of the legs and hands
  • Fever
  • Abdominal pain
  • Splenic sequestration

Most infants with sickle cell anemia do not have any symptoms because the hemoglobin in their red blood cells prevents the cells from acquiring the sickle-like shape. However, this hemoglobin starts to decrease once the infant reaches five months of age, and the symptoms of the disease begin to manifest (x).

Symptoms — Adolescent to Adult Age

Symptoms of sickle cell anemia in adolescents and young adults include (x):

  • Eye damage
  • Aseptic necrosis
  • Leg ulcers

Adults experience various symptoms, including pain episodes caused by muscle or bone injury (x).

Sickle Cell Anemia Symptoms

Causes of Sickle Cell Anemia

The leading cause of sickle cell anemia is a genetic defect that affects the hemoglobin-beta gene (x). For a child to get sickle cell anemia, both parents must be sickle cell carriers to pass on the gene abnormality to the child. The gene defect causes hemoglobin molecules to develop an abnormal shape.

If both partners are sickle cell carriers, their child has a one in four chance of having sickle cell anemia (x). However, if the child inherits only one of the sickle cell genes, he or she may become a carrier. Fortunately, carriers do not develop the symptoms of sickle cell anemia. However, they can pass on the disease to their future children if their partners are also sickle cell carriers (x).

Conditions that Promote Distortion of Red Blood Cells

Various conditions distort the red blood cells in patients with sickle cell anemia. These conditions include dehydration, low oxygen levels and high acidity levels in the blood (x).

Some organs such as the liver, kidney and spleen are susceptible to low oxygen or high acidity levels, especially when blood moves slowly through them. In addition, some organs, including the brain, placenta and muscles, promote sickling by extracting lots of oxygen from the blood. Such organs are more susceptible to injuries as a result of sickle cell anemia (x).

Types of Sickle Cell Anemia

The type of sickle cell anemia that a person inherits depends on the specific type of hemoglobin that they have (x). There are various types of hemoglobin, including hemoglobin Sβ thalassemia, hemoglobin SC, hemoglobin SS, hemoglobin SO, hemoglobin SD and hemoglobin SE (x).

Sickle Cell Anemia Diagnosis

Sickle cell anemia can be identified by examining red blood cells under a microscope (x). The exam involves obtaining blood samples and preparing it for analysis in a process known as sickle prep (x). Solubility tests can also be used to confirm sickle cell anemia (x). It is also possible to diagnose sickle cell anemia in unborn children through chorionic villus sampling or amniocentesis (x).

Sickle Cell Anemia Remedies and Supplements

In some cases, sickle cell anemia stabilizes on its own without any specific treatments. However, sickle cell anemia patients experiencing a severe drop in hemoglobin levels may require a blood transfusion. While a blood transfusion may be recommended for some patients, it may have side effects such as (x):

  • Infection
  • Immune reaction
  • Hepatitis
  • Iron overload that may cause injuries to body tissues

Red blood cell exchange may be done as last resort treatment to replace sickled red blood cells with healthy ones. This exchange is recommended for people whose anemia is so severe that other treatment options do not work (x).

Doctors may prescribe medication for managing the pain crises of patients with sickle cell anemia (x). The crises are usually caused by an inadequate supply of oxygen to body tissues due to blockage of blood vessels by sickled cells. The blockage may cause pain, and the intensity is determined by the organ or tissue that is experiencing the blockage (x).

Opiate medication may be prescribed for managing the pain crises. The episodes of pain are usually worsened by stress, injuries, strenuous exercise, dehydration, exposure to heat and cold and infection. Therefore, it is important to drink lots of fluids to remain hydrated.

Physicians may prescribe hydroxyurea (x) to children and adults with severe pain as a result of sickle cell anemia. This medication may also be considered for patients with a recurrent transfusion or stroke. Joint inflammation and pain may be reduced by taking anti-inflammation drugs such as aspirin and ibuprofen (x).

Outlook

Some patients may live with the condition for years without experiencing any symptoms, while others may not live past infancy or adolescence. Nevertheless, many patients live beyond 40 years (x).

Most patients experience pain crises, infections, fatigue and progressive tissue damage (x). On the other hand, children with the condition often experience impaired growth and development (x). The most common causes of death among sickle cell anemia patients are bacterial infections, stroke and internal bleeding. Although bacterial infections are the most common causes of death among sickle cell anemia patients, anyone above the age of three is less susceptible to the infections (x).

Surprisingly, people with sickle cell anemia are partially resistant to malaria (x). In contrast, sickle cell anemia has similar geographic distribution patterns as malaria. Anyone can inherit this disease regardless of the race (x).

Home Remedies for Sickle Cell Anemia

Zinc

This product supports skin, gut and immune health. Zinc also supports reproductive health, hormonal balance, cell production, protein synthesis and the absorption of other nutrients such as vitamins and minerals.

Take 90 milligrams of this supplement once per day, preferably with meals. Consult your physician before taking zinc supplements, especially if you have bleeding disorders, diabetes, or if you are allergic to zinc. Also, avoid taking this supplement with ginkgo biloba, especially if you have a history of bleeding disorders. Expecting and lactating women should avoid taking this supplement. Overdose may cause side effects such as an upset stomach and itching.

Fish Oil

Fish oil is an excellent source of essential fatty acids that promote cardiac and blood circulatory health. The recommended intake for this supplement is two softgels taken not more than three times per day. Overdose may cause side effects such as diarrhea, acid reflux and abdominal discomfort.

Avoid using this supplement if you are allergic to fish or if you are currently using blood thinners. It is essential to refrigerate this product after opening to preserve potency. Do not use a fish oil supplement if you are pregnant or nursing.

L-Glutamine

The L-glutamine supplement is a food-grade product free of fillers and GMO ingredients. It is rich in amino acids, which are the building blocks of the bone and muscle tissues in the body. This product promotes gastrointestinal health and athletic endurance.

The safe dosage for L-glutamine is 1,000 milligrams taken up to three times per day. For the best results, take this supplement at least an hour before or after meals. However, expecting and nursing mothers are cautioned not to use this product.

Boswellia

Boswellia has anti-inflammatory agents and supports gut health. It helps to relieve joint pains commonly associated with sickle cell anemia. Take 450 mg of boswellia up to two times per day, preferably with meals. Overdose may cause stomach discomfort, which should disappear once you reduce the dosage. However, do not use this product if you are nursing or in a maternal condition.

Rehmannia Root Powder

Rehmannia supports urinary tract health and regulates blood sugar levels. Take 700 mg of rehmannia root powder up to three times per day. This is a food-grade product that should be safe for use by adults provided you adhere to the recommended dosage. However, do not take without a doctor’s approval if you have diabetes. Also, do not take at all if you are expecting or nursing.

Ascorbyl Palmitate Capsules

Ascorbyl palmitate is a fast-absorbing antioxidant that supports immune health, cardiac and gut health. The suggested dietary intake is one capsule per day. This supplement is best taken with meals. There should be no side effects of using this product if you have diabetes. However, consult a doctor before supplementing with ascorbyl palmitate if you have sickle cell anemia, kidney problems, iron overload and diabetes.

Pregnant and nursing women, as well as people who are on blood-thinning medication, are cautioned not to use this supplement. In addition, consult a doctor before use if you have a copper deficiency.

L-Citrulline DL-Malate

L-citrulline DL-malate promotes tissue and muscle recovery after an illness or workout. Take 3 to 4 grams twice per day. Consider taking the first dose in the morning and the second one about 45 minutes before working out. Although this product is safe for use, first-time users may experience diarrhea, headache, nausea and stomach upset.

Alpha Lipoic Acid Powder

Alpha lipoic acid powder is an excellent antioxidant that also boosts energy levels in the body. Take 600 mg twice per day with meals. People with diabetes or thyroid problems should avoid using it unless specifically instructed by a doctor. Also, do not take ALA if you are pregnant or nursing.

The Bottom Line

Sickle cell anemia is an inherited blood disorder caused by a gene abnormality (x). Some of the symptoms of this condition include joint and muscle pain, bone infarcts, leg ulcers, inflammation of the limbs and bacterial infection (x). Unfortunately, there is no cure yet for this condition. However, doctors may prescribe medication and supplements to help manage the symptoms.

About the author

Carey Ojuju


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