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What You Need to Know About Sickle Cell Disease

Did you know that sickle cell disease (SCD) is most prevalent in the African-American population? Well, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that one in 500 African-Americans are born with this condition and one in 13 African-American babies carry the gene.

World Sickle Cell Day is approaching on June 19, so now is a great time to learn more about the genetic blood disorder that affects so many people across Tennessee and around the country.

What is Sickle Cell Disease?

It is a blood disorder that involves irregular hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is a protein in your red blood cells that carries oxygen to your tissues and organs. This condition is hereditary, meaning it’s passed down from both parents. When only one parent has the gene, a child is a carrier of the disease.

The most common type of sickle cell disease is sickle cell anemia, which occurs when the body does not produce enough healthy red blood cells to carry sufficient oxygen. Red blood cells are normally very flexible, which allows them to move easily and quickly through the blood vessels.

However, when someone has this condition, the blood cells become hard and sticky, giving them a half-moon shape and causing them to clump together. These cells then stick to the small blood vessels, blocking oxygen and blood flow to tissues and organs. Unfortunately, there is no cure for this condition, but there are treatments that can alleviate pain and reduce stress related to the disease.

What Are the Symptoms?

Symptoms vary, but here are some of the most common:

  • Anemia: When there aren’t enough red blood cells to supply oxygen to tissues and organs, a patient can become extremely tired.
  • Flares: Episodes of pain can occur when sickle red blood cells block blood flow to the chest, joints, bones, liver and abdomen.
  • Puffiness: Sickle-shaped red blood cells can block blood flow to the hands and feet, causing pain and puffiness.
  • Chronic Infections: Sickle-shaped cells can damage the spleen and increase the risk of infections.
  • Vision Problems: Sickle-shaped cells can block the tiny blood vessels in the eyes, leading to retina damage, decreased vision or even blindness.
  • Jaundice: When red blood cells rapidly break down, a patient is at risk of developing jaundice.
  • Organ Damage: When the organs and tissues are deprived of oxygen-rich blood, a patient is at risk of developing kidney, lung and brain damage.

Do Symptoms Differ in Adults and Children?

Symptoms are the same for children and adults, but the severity of the symptoms can vary, depending on the person’s genetic type. This condition is genetic, but it doesn’t usually show up until the baby is 5-6 months old.

How Is Sickle Cell Treated?

This condition is treated with a variety of measures to reduce pain and prevent complications. Some of these treatments are:

  • Antibiotics and pain relievers
  • Hydroxyurea (a medication that prevents your red blood cells from sticking together)
  • Gene therapy
  • Blood transfusions
  • Bone marrow transplant
  • Nitric oxide (a gas that opens up your blood vessels)

How Are Tennesseans Helping Make a Difference?

In Memphis, Methodist University Hospital’s Comprehensive Sickle Cell Center and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital are working tirelessly towards developing a cure.

Memphis Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley has also seen first-hand the effects of sickle cell disease because of cousins who have suffered from the condition. As a result, Conley has lent his time, money and support towards finding a cure.

Advice or recommendations are for informational or educational purposes only, not a substitute for a visit or consultation with your doctor.

Dr. R.Y. Langham

Dr. R. Y. Langham holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Fisk University, a Master of Marriage and Family Therapy (M.M.F.T.)  from Trevecca Nazarene University and a Ph.D. in Family Psychology from Capella University. She is currently a medical, health & wellness contributor, copywriter, researcher and psychological consultant for Livestrong magazine and  

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