What Are the Possible Complications of Sickle Cell Anemia?

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  • Written By: Karize Uy
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 18 September 2019
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Some possible complications of sickle cell anemia include acute chest syndrome, pulmonary hypertension, and stroke, the first two of which are said to more frequent causes of death for those with sickle cell anemia. Other complications are vaso-occlusive crises, vision problems, and skin ulcers. One of the most dangerous complications of sickle cell anemia in men is priapism, which is a prolonged and painful erection that can be experienced by, at most, 40% of men who suffer from the disorder.

Sickle cell anemia, or sickle cell disease, is a genetic disorder that results in abnormally-shaped red blood cells. Normally, red blood cells are shaped like round discs, but for those with sickle cell disease, their red blood cells are crescent- or sickle-shaped, due to a mutated type of hemoglobin less flexible than the normal kind. These hemoglobin molecules tend to bunch up, thus making the red blood cells more rigid and sickle-shaped. These red blood cells can carry only a partial amount of oxygen that normal red blood cells can carry, and also die quicker than normal red blood cells. As a result, patients often suffer from oxygen deficiency and general weakness, some symptoms and complications of sickle cell anemia.


One of the primary reasons for the many complications of sickle cell anemia is blockage. Unlike normal red blood cells that pass through blood vessels one at a time, the defective red blood cells often pass through in groups because of their smaller, irregular shapes, causing restricted blood flow. This blockage is often the cause for acute chest syndrome, in which the lungs do not receive enough blood, and the patient experiences breathing difficulties, chest pains, and even infections. If the blockage is located in the brain, the result is a stroke, indicated by numbness of limbs, seizures, and unconsciousness.

Other complications of sickle cell anemia depend on where the blockage is located. For example, vaso-occlusive crises, which are episodic pains in different parts, can signal a blockage in some organs and can lead to organ damage. Unexplained blindness means that the obstruction is occurring at the small vessels in the eye. In cases of ulcers, the lack of hemoglobin and oxygen hinders the body from the clotting and healing of wounds, causing the ulcers. Priapism, on the other hand, is triggered by blocked blood vessels in the penis and can result in impotence if prolonged erection is not treated immediately.



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