Chronic pain is a condition in which many people live much of their lives. It takes on many forms because of injuries and illnesses. The medical industry is starting to consider that the pharmaceuticals they have been producing, specifically opioids and other addictive and dangerous drugs, might not be the best way to treat chronic pain; and that maybe, just maybe, “chronic” (a.k.a. cannabis) might be the best choice in many cases, including in sickle cell disease.
What is sickle cell disease?
Sickle cell disease is a genetic condition that affects approximately 70,000 to 100,000 Americans. One of every 365 African-Americans is affected and one of every 16,300 Hispanics. Most red blood cells are shaped like a doughnut with no hole. But sickle cell sufferers have RBCs shaped instead like crescent moons or harvesting sickles.
That shape makes their blood less effective at delivering oxygen and iron to the body, resulting in anemia. It can lead to RBCs getting caught or blocked in groups—making the circulatory system swollen, inflamed, and extremely painful. Children with sickle cell disease will usually be smaller in size, experience delayed puberty, and face a lifetime of discomfort, pain, and other health complications.
The only known cure is a bone marrow transplant. And, usually, the only viable candidates are healthy siblings. But it’s still rare to find a match. So, living with and addressing the symptoms become the strategic focus.
Is there any hope?
Apart from a bone marrow transplant, the only choice is to treat the symptoms. Antibiotics are used to treat the infections that commonly accompany the disorder. Patients often rely on over-the-counter pain relievers like non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) and acetaminophen, but there are side effects of long-term use. Acetaminophen can cause liver damage, and NSAIDs may cause stomach bleeding and raise your risk of heart attack or stroke.
Opioids present a whole mess of other problems: overdose, addiction, liver damage, and even death. Patients routinely develop tolerance to these medications, meaning the more they use, the more they need to obtain the same relief. This vicious circle can lead patients to heroin, as both their pain and the cost of the pills steadily increase. The use of these drugs to treat chronic pain, as in sickle cell disease, can be directly linked to the opioid epidemic raging across the country and around the world.
Sickle cell disease is a lifelong illness; and taking opioid pain relievers on a constant basis can result in death, addiction, or at least, sluggish malaise. In the late 1990s a new drug called hydroxyurea was approved to treat sickle cell anemia. It can improve the function of the red blood cells without too many drastic side effects. However, the long-term effects are still being studied.
Hydroxyurea works by improving the function of the red blood cells. It improves oxygenation and circulation and reduces the risk of transient ischemic attacks and strokes. Known side effects, however, can be severe; they include nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, dizziness, sores, diarrhea, hair loss, and even seizures. In some patients, increased infections were noted. So, the drug is usually reserved for treating the sickest of the sick, and not mild cases.
There is another way
Cannabis, which has been used as medicine for thousands of years, has potent anti-inflammatory properties. It not only can reduce pain, but can also remedy sources of pain, like swelling and fever. Cannabis also has widely celebrated analgesic properties, meaning cannabis works to reduce pain, altering pain transmission and perception. While it doesn’t affect the shape of the blood cells, it does relieve pain and swelling quite effectively.
Kalpna Gupta, associate professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota, has been conducting research on mice with sickle cell disease. “We find that cannabinoids have good outcomes in treating pain,” she explains. The University of Minnesota has been conducting studies since July 2015 on the effectiveness of cannabis in treating sickle cell in humans, though they had to go to California to be able to do it.
They elected to use vaporized cannabis to avoid any toxins associated with smoking. The effects are felt more quickly than with ingestion, so can be used to treat pain more immediately. However, taken in conjunction with edibles, the pain relief would last up to eight hours, or possibly longer. Smoking or vaping cannabis results in much faster onset of pain relief, anywhere from five to 15 minutes. But it lasts only an hour or two. Ingesting cannabis instead makes the pain relief last longer, but the effects also take longer to be felt, up to 90 minutes.
Doctors keep saying this is good for people
WebMD reports that Mark Ware, M.D., assistant professor of anesthesia and family medicine at McGill University in Montreal, published a study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal showing cannabis is an effective medicine for pain control. “We’ve shown again that cannabis is analgesic,” Ware says. “Clearly, it has medical value.” We emphasize that last sentence because it directly contradicts the federal government and DEA’s archaic, absurd, and willfully ignorant opinion that cannabis is “without medical value” and thus should be classified alongside heroin.
As medical cannabis is being legalized throughout the U.S., and as more studies are done, it’s becoming evident to the public and medical practitioners that cannabis can be very useful for a variety of conditions and illnesses—notably, chronic pain. The era of prohibition should be coming to an end sooner rather than later. Sadly, not soon enough for those who suffer from pain every day.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Amber Boone considers writing the cornerstone of communication. She interviews MMA (mixed martial arts) athletes for CombatPress.com and opines on MMA at FightItOut.com. She’s passionate about helping folks tell their stories and making the world a better place, which includes working to win the freedom of Americans to partake of the herb. When not writing or playing beach volleyball, she can be found at her day job—for now. Follow Amber on Twitter @thruthetrees11.