Researchers explore ways to help sickle cell disease patients manage pain

A medical photo shows how blood can sickle in patients with sickle cell disease.

Patients with sickle cell disease (SCD) can experience sharp pain running through tiny blood vessels in their bones. When the sudden onset of pain, the result of red blood cells sickling together, becomes unbearable, they can end up in the emergency room. A study in Scientific Reports, supported by the NHLBI, assessed the role new approaches, like nutrition and friendship, may have in alleviating SCD-induced pain and in minimizing the use of opioids.

Researchers found that, in mice, a nutrient-rich diet designed for SCD and having close companions, altered pain perception. The interventions worked alone and together, but need to be studied in humans. The researchers also found the interventions boosted the effectiveness of a partial dose of morphine. Similar effects were achieved with duloxetine, a medication that supports levels of serotonin, or “feel-good” chemicals in the brain. Duloxetine is being studied for its ability to help patients with arthritis manage knee pain and improve their quality of life.

“Finding safe and effective alternatives to opioids is a research priority, especially for patients with sickle cell disease,” said Keith Hoots, M.D., director of the Division of Blood Diseases and Resources at the NHLBI. “It’s encouraging to see a dose-response relationship to nutrients and companions in mice, which guides future research about the role foods and friends may have in helping humans manage chronic pain.”