Medical marijuana and the treatment of sickle cell disease

Sickle cell anemia is a complex medical condition that affects roughly 100,000 people in the US and countless more across the world. The disease affects the flow and oxygen levels in blood, causing a variety of symptoms and health complications for patients.

While little research has been dedicated to exploring how cannabis could help treat sickle cell anemia and other types of sickle cell disease, some preliminary surveys show that it is commonly used among patients to deal with pain as well as emotional symptoms caused by sickle cell conditions.


Sickle cell anemia is the most common type of sickle cell disease. It is a typically inherited form of anemia that is characterized by insufficient levels of healthy red blood cells in the blood.

Healthy red blood cells are typically round and flexible. These cells contain haemoglobin, a special protein that is responsible for carrying oxygen around the body. People with sickle cell anemia, however, have red blood cells that are rigid and sickle-shaped due to an abnormality in the haemoglobin protein.

These irregularities in the shape of the red blood cells means they can easily stuck in the blood vessels. This can result in slower blood flow (or even blockage), which ultimately disrupts the transportation of oxygen around the body.

Regular red blood cells live for roughly 120 days. Sickle cells, however, usually die in 10-20 days. This causes a shortage of red blood cells in the blood, also known as anemia. This basically causes oxygen shortage in the body.

Sickle cell anemia is usually diagnosed in infants. Some important signs to look out for in children include swelling, unexplained pain, fever, pale skin/nail beds, and a yellowing tint in the skin or eyes.

Sickle cell anemia is typically an inherited condition. It is caused by a genetic mutation that affects the production of haemoglobin, which ultimately leads to the production of the sickle blood cells mentioned earlier.

This genetic mutation is usually inherited and passed on from generation to generation. The gene typically needs to be passed on by both the mother and father of a child in order for that child to be affected.

Children who inherit the affected gene from only one parent will produce both normal and sickle cell haemoglobin. However, this usually doesn't cause any symptoms or complications, although it does mean that the child can pass on the genetic mutation to future generations.


The signs and symptoms of sickle cell anemia vary from patient to patient. However, some common symptoms include:

  • Pain. Patients will typically experience painful episodes (known as crises), which are caused by sickle-shaped cells blocking blood flow in blood vessels. Patients commonly experience pain in the chest, abdomen, and joints.
  • Painful swelling. This is also caused by sickle-shaped cells blocking blood flow and usually affects the hands and feet.
  • Fatigue, caused by low red blood cell counts and a diminished level of oxygen being transported around the body.
  • Frequent infections. Sickle cells can damage parts of the body responsible for fighting infection, ultimately leaving patients more vulnerable to infections like pneumonia.
  • Slowed growth (mostly in children and infants).


Apart from the symptoms listed above, patients suffering from sickle cell anemia are at a greater risk of developing other serious health complications such as:

  • Stroke, caused by a sickle cell blockage in the brain.
  • Acute chest syndrome, a life threatening condition caused by blocked blood vessels in the lungs.
  • Pulmonary hypertension, causing shortness of breath and fatigue which can be fatal.
  • Organ damage. A blockage caused by sickle cells immediately robs organs of blood and oxygen, causing serious damage. Even without a blockage, the low levels of oxygen in the blood caused by sickle cell anemia can cause organ damage over time, especially to the kidneys, liver, and spleen
  • Blindness, caused by blockage and low oxygen transportation to the eyes, resulting in retina damage.
  • Leg ulcers.
  • Gallstones.
  • Priapism (in men), caused by blocked blood flow in the penis, resulting in long-lasting, painful erections.


Sickle cell anemia can possibly be cured by bone marrow transplant. However, the procedure is complicated and generally reserved for patients under 16 years-old, as the risk of the procedure increases with age.

More often than not, sickle cell anemia is treated so as to minimize symptoms, prevent the aforementioned complications, and and minimize painful episodes.

Treatment generally consists of medications used to reduce pain and complications, as well as blood transfusions. Commonly used medication in the treatment of sickle cell anemia include:

  • Antibiotics, especially in infants and children, to avoid life-threatening infections
  • Pain medication
  • Hydroxyurea, used to reduce painful crises


Medicinal cannabis is a buzzword. For some it seems like a simple pseudo-medical excuse to get high. But for others, it provides life-changing relief from a wide variety of conditions, including epilepsy, anxiety, PTSD, and even neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

According to medical surveys, cannabis is also offering relief to patients suffering from sickle cell anemia. In 2005, a survey published in the British Journal of Haematology found that, of the 86 participants suffering from various types of sickle cell disease, 36% had used cannabis in the previous 12 months to relieve symptoms of their condition.

The most common symptoms these patients treated with cannabis were pain, as well as relieving emotional stresses such as feelings of anxiety and depression caused by their symptoms.

This may come as no surprise to some readers. As research into medical marijuana develops, so does the consensus that cannabis has powerful pain-relieving qualities. This makes it an attractive alternative for patients dealing with pain, including those suffering from sickle cell diseases.

For example, a 2016 study found that cannabis reduced pain and improved functional outcomes in over 270 patients suffering from chronic pain. The study found that the use of medical marijuana in these patients not only greatly reduced the severity of their pain and the level to which it interfered with their lives, but also helped them become more functional. Medical cannabis use also drove down the use of opiates by over 40% of participants.

Cannabis is believed to provide pain relief by suppressing pain signals delivered to the brain. How exactly it does so isn’t clear. However, by interacting with particular receptors in the brain, it seems cannabinoids like CBD and THC are able to temporarily mute pain signals, ultimating relieving painful symptoms in patients.

The exact way cannabis aids in the management of anxiety and depression, however, isn’t so well understood. Many US states list anxiety, PTSD, and depression as qualifying conditions for medical marijuana, and a variety of studies have begun to research this field.

However, the fact that cannabis can actually cause anxiety and depression in some people complicates this discussion. The endocannabinoid system seems to be involved in managing many physiological processes, including mood and memory (key factors in anxiety disorders), but the exact role it plays still isn’t clear.


Unfortunately, very few studies have explored how cannabinoids like THC, CBD, and others could help in the management of sickle cell anemia and other types of sickle cell disease.

Nonetheless, the strong evidence pointing at cannabis’ pain-relieving properties combined with the anecdotal evidence from surveys like the one mentioned above make an interesting case for medical marijuana and its place in helping to treat sickle cell anemia and related conditions.

Hopefully we will soon get more concrete answers to these questions as more research is dedicated to better understanding cannabis and its role in medicine.

Note: We have taken the utmost care and precaution whilst writing this article. That being said, please take note of the fact that we are not medical professionals of any kind. is strictly a news and information website. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.