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
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
How is it treated?
Treatment depends on the level of pain and how long it lasts. Sometimes, nonprescription, 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.
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.
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:
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
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:
How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.