Sickle cell anemia is an inherited disease that more than 70,000 Americans suffer from. While the condition cannot be cured in a majority of cases, it can be effectively managed. Treatment is meted out to relieve pain and help prevent further problems associated with the condition.
A sickle is a farming tool with a semicircular blade. This illness shares the name of the tool as it is defined as a condition where the body produces sickle-shaped red blood cells. Normal red blood cells are circular with slight depressions in the center, and travel with ease through the blood vessels. The protein hemoglobin contained in red blood cells is what gives blood its rich red color, and carries oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. When this protein is not normal, it causes the red blood cells to take on this crescent shape. These cells are stiff and sticky, and have the tendency of bunching together and getting stuck in the blood vessels, often blocking blood flow.
As sickle cell anemia is an inherited disease, it is present from birth, but signs of the condition are usually seen after 4 months. Anemia is one of the most common symptoms of the disease, which is shortage of red blood cells. People with anemia are unusually pale and experience constant fatigue. People with sickle cell anemia also suffer from periodic episodes of pain. Called crises, they are caused by the sickle-shaped red blood cells blocking blood flow through blood vessels. The pain may be severe or mild, and may last from anywhere between a few hours to a few weeks. Often, swelling of hands and feet of infants is the first sign of this condition. Other symptoms are jaundice, frequent infections, delayed growth, and vision problems.
As the illness can result in serious health problems, the life expectancy for patients is obviously lesser than those who don't have the condition. However, treatment and care for the disease is getting better, which means improved life expectancy. In the US, on an average, men with this condition live for about 42 years, while women live for 48 years.
The only possible cure lies in bone marrow transplant. However, the procedure is very risky, and finding a donor is difficult. Usually, treatment is given with the aim of avoiding crises, relieving the symptoms, and preventing complications. This can include medications to reduce pain and prevent complications, blood transfusions, and supplemental oxygen, and in cases where it is possible, a bone marrow transplant. The treatment options are likely to widen as ongoing researches into the condition yield results. The patient needs consistent medical attention, and frequent visits to the doctor to check the red blood cell count and overall health.
In the past, people with sickle cell anemia often died between the ages 20 and 40 from organ failure. However, thanks to a better understanding and management of the disease, the expectancy has increased, and patients can live into their 50s. This illness places a lot of stress on the patient as well as his/her family, which can be dealt with (one of the ways) by joining a support group.