How Medical Marijuana Helps Treat Sickle Cell Anemia

  • How medical marijuana helps treat sickle cell anemia.
  • Studies on medical marijuana for sickle cell anemia.
  • Best cannabis products for treating sickle cell anemia.
  • Best marijuana strains for treating sickle cell anemia.
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Tragically, this year in the U.S. approximately 1,000 children will be born with sickle cell anemia, also known as sickle cell disease (SCD). In this article, we’ll talk about the benefits of medical marijuana, examine the results of clinical trials, highlight effective delivery methods, and discuss the best strains for treating sickle cell anemia.

How Does Medical Marijuana Help Sickle Cell Anemia?

At the onset of the disease, healthy red blood cells become hard and sticky and develop an abnormal shape similar to a sickle. When these misshapen cells die off, they clog blood flow in the arteries, significantly reducing oxygen levels in the body. This lack of oxygen often results in lethal strokes, infections, and chronic pain. At present, the only known cure for sickle cell anemia is an extremely risky stem cell or bone marrow transplant.

Many sickle cell patients find relief with traditional pain meds, including powerful opioids. These drugs are known to efficiently manage chronic pain but come with a multitude of dire side effects, such as depression, pruritus, constipation, and, of course, risk of addiction.

Medical marijuana may be a safer option than opioids for individuals suffering from sickle cell anemia. Not surprisingly, the abundant anecdotal and clinical evidence suggesting medical marijuana is a viable treatment for sickle cell anemia is now garnering serious attention from medical marijuana doctors nationwide.

Studies have revealed a profound interaction between the body’s innate endocannabinoid system and the application of medical marijuana. Numerous trials have suggested that cannabinoids contain both analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties. These properties may mitigate the oxidative stress, mast cell activation, and neuropathy associated with sickle cell anemia.

Studies on medical marijuana and sickle cell disease

Unfortunately, clinical studies reviewing the effects of marijuana on sickle cell anemia are practically non-existent at this time. However, the data gathered so far is encouraging.

One insightful review from the publication “Blood Advances,” is titled “Medical marijuana certification for patients with sickle cell disease: a report of a single-center experience.” 

The article follows the progress of fifty SSD patients who obtained a medical marijuana card. Some of the certified patients opted to use marijuana in lieu of opioids. Others eschewed the use of medical marijuana and continued opioid treatments. The certified patients who chose to medicate with cannabis showed a reduction in median 6-month hospital admissions compared with the patients who were certified but did not use medical marijuana. 

Here is an excerpt from the report:

“Most changes in admissions were ±1, but in those who obtained medical marijuana, 2 patients reduced by 2, 2 patients by 3, 1 patient by 4, and 1 patient by 5, whereas in those who did not obtain, only 1 reduced admission by 2.”

Irvine, Calif. researcher Kalpna Gupta and Dr. Donald Abrams of UC SF conducted a double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized trial to explore the pain-relieving benefits of marijuana on patients suffering from Sickle cell disease. The medical marijuana used in the trial contained equal parts THC and CBD and was obtained from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

In the trial, twenty-three patients with SSD-related pain were administered either vaporized marijuana or a vaporized placebo. There were two five-day sessions thirty days apart. 

Pain levels were assessed as the treatment period progressed. The researchers were surprised to discover that the effectiveness of the vaporized marijuana increased over time. The participants reported reduced pain during activities such as walking, as well as deeper, pain-free sleep. The cannabis patients also experienced less depression. 

Dr. Gupta concluded at the end of the trial that marijuana is a safe and effective replacement for traditional pain meds. He stated: 

These trial results show that vaporized cannabis appears to be generally safe. They also suggest that sickle cell patients may be able to mitigate their pain with cannabis — and that cannabis might help society address the public health crisis related to opioids. Of course, we still need larger studies with more participants to give us a better picture of how cannabis could benefit people with chronic pain. We don’t know if all forms of cannabis products will have a similar effect on chronic pain. Vaporized cannabis, which we employed, may be safer than other forms because lower amounts reach the body’s circulation. This trial opens the door for testing different forms of medical cannabis to treat chronic pain.”

How does medical marijuana help sickle cell anemia patients?

Nerve pain and vascular dysfunction are manifestations of complex sickle cell disease. Cannabinoids such as CBD and THC have been known to effectively provide protection from these manifestations as well as reducing chronic inflammation.

Both CBD and THC also produce an antidepressant effect and enhance the production of anandamide and serotonin. This effect is beneficial to SSD patients dealing with chronic pain which often induces severe depressive episodes.

Patients also experience bouts of anxiety. CBD, with its non-psychoactive properties, allows patients to feel a sense of calm, due to its ability to improve mood.

Studies have indicated that the application of cannabinoids can reduce the severity of nerve pain by inhibiting the inflammatory response.

According to a study conducted at Harvard University, cannabinoids may potentially mitigate both neuropathic and inflammatory pain, two of the most challenging types of pain to treat successfully.

Terpenes are another beneficial component of medical marijuana. These aromatic oils produced in cannabis buds are gaining notoriety for their many healing properties. When combined with cannabinoids, terpenes often increase the beneficial effects of cannabis. This is known as the entourage effect

This synergy between cannabinoids and terpenes enhances the properties of cannabis and produces both physiological and psychological benefits including reducing pain and inflammation and lowering anxiety and depression. 

A terpene called myrcene mimics an opioid-like mechanism. Another known as limonene relieves bone and muscle pain. And beta-caryophyllene also offers analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties. Strains that are high in these terpenes will offer the most benefit to SCD patients.

Best cannabis products for treating sickle cell anemia

Smoking marijuana flower

Smoking the resinous flower clusters of the cannabis plant brings almost instantaneous effects. However, smoking is not advisable for sickle cell disease patients if they are severely compromised as it can increase blood pressure. CBD hemp can also be smoked like regular marijuana but is non-intoxicating. Like marijuana, smoking hemp flower invokes a feeling of calm and can have powerful pain-relieving benefits. It is an excellent choice for individuals who don’t want the intoxicating effects of marijuana.

Vaping cannabis oil

There are two types of vape pens. One comes with a cartridge containing cannabis oil, the other type has a chamber that holds marijuana flower. As with smoking, vaping offers fast relief but can also be harmful to the lungs. 

Tinctures and oils

Liquid drops containing cannabinoids and terpenes can be taken sublingually for fast relief (under the tongue). The effects kick in quickly and are long-lasting. These products are also available without terpenes.

Cannabis-infused edibles

Cannabis-infused edibles such as gummies and baked goods are probably the best choice for SCD patients. They can take an hour or more to reach full effect. However, the effects are strong and long-lasting.

Best marijuana strains for sickle cell disease

Medical marijuana comes in a wide variety of strains with varying levels of cannabinoids and terpenes. Some strains are better than others for treating SCD.

These strains are great for treating depression due to the chronic pain associated with the condition.

SSD patients also deal with episodes of anxiety related to their excruciating symptoms. The strains that treat anxiety usually have a high CBD content. Indica strains are also good since they tend to relax the mind instead of supercharging it. Some of the best strains for anxiety include:

All of the above-mentioned strains can help relieve pain.

Keep in mind, every patient is different. Some patients might find that marijuana actually worsens some symptoms. For example, some patients might have increased anxiety when using strains that are high in THC. 

We hope this article provided some valuable information that can help patients suffering from sickle cell anemia to make an informed decision as to how to treat their symptoms with medical marijuana. However, it’s always best to use marijuana under the guidance of a qualified medical marijuana doctor. 

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