Sickle cell anemia, also called sickle cell disease, is a blood disease that is caused by an abnormal type of hemoglobin called hemoglobin S. The condition is characterized by the transformation of normally flexible, round red blood cells to rigid, crescent-shaped cells (like sickles). These misshapen red blood cells are fragile and often break. Sickle cells also tend to clog small arteries in the bones, liver, spleen, and other organs, which can cause severe pain.
Sickle cell anemia is an inherited disease that usually appears in childhood. While not especially common among people of European descent, it is prevalent among people of African descent. Individuals of Mediterranean, Asian, and South and Central American heritage also are at increased risk for the disease.
The condition is chronic with no cure. Certain situations can trigger emergencies. For instance, because a lack of oxygen at high altitudes makes red blood cells even more fragile and prone to breaking, people with sickle cell anemia often become dangerously lightheaded and breathless at high elevations. Also, people with sickle cell disease are particularly vulnerable to infectious diseases.
Signs and Symptoms
- Shortness of breath
- Rapid heartbeat
- Skin ulcers on lower legs
- Susceptibility to infections
- Delayed growth and development (in children)
- Vision problems (in some cases)
- Attacks of pain caused by blocked blood vessels or damaged organs (emergency symptom)
- Severe lightheartedness (emergency symptom)
- Severe shortness of breath (emergency symptom)
Conventional Medical Treatment
A blood test can detect the presence of abnormal red blood cells and hemoglobin S, confirming a diagnosis. Treatment includes daily folic acid supplements, a B-family vitamin that is lacking in people with sickle cell disease. Much of the treatment for sickle cell disease is based on preventing complications. Because bacterial infections are one of the most common complications, patients are closely monitored for infection and given antibiotics, such as penicillin or erythromycin, at the first sign of bacterial illness. Blood transfusions may be given several times during a lifetime in order to strengthen a weakened blood supply.
Complementary and Alternative Treatments
Traditional Chinese Medicine
Acupuncture – In order to improve the flow of blood and boost the immune system (both of which are compromised in sickle cell patients), an acupuncturist may focus on Large Intestine, Lung, Bladder, Stomach, Spleen, Pericardium, Conception Vessel, and Governing Vessel.
Acupressure may be helpful in improving circulation and reducing symptom including lethargy, shortness of breath, and dizziness. It also may help boost the immune system, which can stave off infections and colds.
Chinese Herbal Therapy – TCM practitioners believe that sickle cell anemia (and all anemia) is caused by deficient blood, so herbs are prescribed to correct this problem. Preparations used to treat this condition may include Chinese cornbind, caltrop, ginseng, ligusticum, cordyceps, Tibetan saffron, angelica, rehmannia, and astragalus.
The Chinese combination medicines Dang Gui Four, Return Spleen Tablets, or White Phoenix Pills also may be recommended.