Medical Marijuana and Sickle Cell Disease Treatment
Sickle cell disease cannot be cured unless a young patient has a bone marrow transplant before the age of 16. However, it and its symptoms can be treated. Medical marijuana is becoming more and more popular to treat this disease in states where cannabis is legal. In addition to being an anti-inflammatory and analgesic, marijuana can lift a patient’s mood, help them sleep, and increase appetite if their hunger has been affected by the disease. Marijuana can also be a healthier alternative to other treatments for the disease which include opioids for pain management. As stress is a trigger for pain attacks, the relaxing effects of cannabis on its own may be extremely beneficial for those with the disease.
What is Sickle Cell Anemia?
Sickle cell disease is a hereditary condition that causes changes in the shape and functioning of hemoglobin. To inherit the disease, both parents of a sufferer must have the mutated hemoglobin gene. Patients with this condition have it from birth but don’t usually display symptoms until five or six months of age.
Those with sickle cell disease have red blood cells that become misshapen and sticky and cannot transport oxygen properly. Normal red blood cells are round and flexible and they can move through the blood vessels easily to perform their function. Sickle cells are rigid and shaped like a crescent moon and often become wedged in blood vessels and cause blockages. The blocked vessels and resulting decreased oxygen results in severe attacks of pain and prolonged deprivation of oxygen that can cause damage to organs as well as joints and bones.
Another consequence of rigid cells is that they can come apart easily and their lifespan is significantly shorter than healthy cells. The body is not able to replace the cells at the rate they die and most with sickle cell anemia have a lower red blood count.
Sickle Cell Anemia Symptoms
Those with sickle cell disease display a variety of symptoms and no two cases are alike. Some cases are life-threatening while others are not and the symptoms can change over a patient’s lifetime. The most common and persistent symptom of this disease is pain in the abdomen, lower back, arms, legs, joints, and chest. There are certain triggers for pain including changes in temperature, dehydration, high altitude, and illness. The pain can be throbbing, sharp, or stabbing and can last from a few hours to a few weeks.
Other possible symptoms include delayed growth, vision difficulties, depression, yellowing of the whites of the eyes, jaundice, swelling in the hands and feet, fatigue, and frequent infections. Those who develop sickle cell anemia are also at a higher risk for heart attacks, strokes, and deadly infections. They also are at risk for eye problems, kidney damage, gallstones, liver problems, and blood clots.
Up until the 70s, the life expectancy of an individual with sickle cell disease was only 14 years. That has increased to 40 to 60 years due to advances in diagnosing and treating the condition. A blood test that looks at hemoglobin S is the most common way for this condition to be diagnosed. This test is now performed on all infants at birth, so it is rare that an individual goes undiagnosed.
How Does Medical Marijuana Treat Sickle Cell Anemia Symptoms?
Medical cannabis is very effective at treating inflammation. When inflammation is reduced, blockages are less likely and tissue damage can be minimized. This all leads to a reduction in the patient’s pain and an overall increase in their well-being and health. The cannabinoids in marijuana work with the natural receptors in the body. When they interact, many processes in the body are improved. This is especially effective for conditions that cause both pain and inflammation.
Patients frequently suffer from fatigue, stress, anxiety, depression, and insomnia. Studies have shown that 39 percent of sickle cell disease patients use medical cannabis to ease depression, relax, and combat anxiety. By reducing stress, patients also have fewer pain attacks. With less pain comes a more normal life as many patients experience pain attacks that are so frequent and severe that they cannot enjoy a normal life.
Methods of Medical Marijuana Treatment
No one with sickle cell disease should treat themselves only with medical marijuana and should not undertake any treatment plan that is not recommended by a licensed physician. If you have this disease, it’s vital that you work with a specialist who can oversee your treatment. Depending on your unique situation, it’s likely they will recommend medical marijuana to reduce pain and inflammation. In some cases, they may recommend it as the exclusive treatment. In others, it may be recommended in addition to taking other prescription medications or to treat the side effects of opioids. Medical cannabis can ease the nausea, fatigue, and reduced appetite that many sickle cell disease prescription drugs can cause.
If you and your physician decide cannabis is a beneficial addition to your treatment plan, the next step is to choose what form and strain of cannabis to use. High CBD strains help with pain and inflammation and do not have a psychoactive effect. Others prefer the energy boost that comes from high THC strains or find these strains better address their pain symptoms. Choosing indica-dominant strains are good for those who have trouble relaxing or sleeping while sativa-dominant strains are good for those experiencing depression or fatigue as they are energizing and uplifting.
Choosing the right method of delivery is also important. It’s common for patients to vape or smoke medical cannabis because of the instant effects while others prefer edibles or pills for their discretion and more long-lasting effects. Topicals, oils, lotions, and tinctures are also options that can be considered.
Possible Side Effects of Medical Cannabis
Though medical cannabis has few side effects, there are still some that sickle cell disease patients should be aware of. These include dizziness, dry mouth, paranoia, insomnia, red eyes, diarrhea, and increased heart rate. Some of the side effects, such as drowsiness and increased appetite, may actually be beneficial for patients if they have problems with sleeping or eating.