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Sickle Cell Crisis (Pain Crisis)

What Is a Sickle Cell Crisis?

People with sickle cell disease sometimes have pain. When this happens, it is called a sickle cell crisis, or pain crisis.

What Causes a Pain Crisis?

Sickle cell disease changes the shape of a person's red blood cells. Instead of being flexible and disc-shaped, they are curved and stiff. These sickle-shaped blood cells don't flow through blood vessels easily, and can clog the vessels. If this happens, blood and oxygen can't get through, and parts of the body (like the heart, lungs, and kidneys) can't work the way they should. The blockage also can cause pain.

Pain crises are more likely when someone is sick, dehydrated, cold, or stressed.

What Does a Pain Crisis Feel Like?

Pain during a sickle cell crisis can happen anywhere in the body, such as the arms, legs, joints, back, or chest. It can come on suddenly, and be mild or severe. The pain can last for a few hours, a few days, or sometimes longer.

What Should I Do If I Have a Pain Crisis?

If you have a pain crisis, tell an adult what's going on. To help ease the pain, you can:

  • Try relaxation techniques and distraction.
  • Apply warm compresses where it hurts (never use ice or cold packs).
  • Drink lots of water and other non-caffeinated beverages.
  • Take over-the-counter pain medicines, like ibuprofen or acetaminophen.

If these things don't help, you may need prescription pain medicine. If you are still in pain, call your doctor or go to the ER. You may need to get stronger medicines and IV fluids in the hospital.

How Can I Help Prevent a Pain Crisis?

Sometimes a pain crisis happens for reasons you can't control, like when you're sick. But to lower your chances of having a crisis, you can:

  • Take all the medicines your doctor recommends as directed.
  • Drink plenty of water all the time, but especially when exercising and on hot days
  • Get enough rest.
  • Avoid extreme temperatures — for example, dress warmly when going outdoors in winter.
  • Talk to your doctor about which activities are right for you and which you should avoid.
  • Wash your hands well and often or use a hand sanitizer, especially before eating.
  • Stay away from sick people.
  • Get all recommended vaccines to help protect you from serious illness.
  • Don't smoke, drink alcohol, or use drugs.

Reviewed by: Larissa Hirsch, MD
Date Reviewed: Oct 1, 2018

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