You may have heard of sickle cell anemia before. It’s a serious illness that’s caused by the development of an irregular form of hemoglobin (a protein found inside our red blood cells that is capable of carrying oxygen through the body) known as hemoglobin S. When hemoglobin S emerges, it has a dramatic effect on the way our red blood cells function. Specifically, it can drastically weaken those cells, making them so fragile that, under a microscope, they appear in the shape of sickles (or scythes), hence the name.
Aside from affecting a red blood cell’s shape, hemoglobin S can also reduce the body’s ability to transport oxygen through the body, meaning our major organs and tissues can be negatively impacted. Unfortunately, if both parents have sickle cell anemia, a child is generally guaranteed to inherit it. The key is recognizing the symptoms of this disease and taking action when it begins to appear.
People with sickle cell anemia are very familiar with the term “crisis,” because patients with sickle cell anemia tend to go through bouts of intense pain and discomfort, known as pain crises, that can spread throughout the body, from the chest down through the back and into the leg muscles and joints. These crises can be so intense that they can make doing everyday activities, such as walking to work or looking after the kids, monumentally difficult tasks.
It’s worth noting that crises may not occur often; in fact, some people don’t experience them for years at a time. It’s also rare for crises to appear in young children, although it can be difficult to identify them when a child’s language skills are still developing. Generally speaking, pain crises appear a few times per year and can be so intense that they may require a patient with sickle cell anemia to spend a few days in the hospital.