Targeting Novel Mechanisms of Pain in Sickle Cell Disease

Huy Tran, Mihir Gupta and Kalpna Gupta


Patients with sickle cell disease (SCD) suffer from intense pain that can start during infancy and increase in severity throughout life, leading to hospitalization and poor quality of life. A unique feature of SCD is vasoocclusive crises (VOC) characterized by episodic, recurrent and unpredictable episodes of acute pain. Microvascular obstruction during VOC leads to impaired oxygen supply to the periphery and ischemia reperfusion injury, inflammation, oxidative stress and endothelial dysfunction, all of which may perpetuate a noxious microenvironment leading to pain. In addition to episodic acute pain, patients with SCD also report chronic pain. Current treatment of moderate to severe pain in SCD is mostly reliant upon opioids; however, long-term use of opioids is associated with multiple side effects. This review presents up-to-date developments in our understanding of the pathobiology of pain in SCD. To help focus future research efforts, major gaps in knowledge are identified regarding how sickle pathobiology evokes pain, pathways specific to chronic and acute sickle pain, perception-based targets of 'top-down' mechanisms originating from the brain and neuromodulation, and how pain affects the sickle microenvironment and pathophysiology. This review also describes mechanism-based targets that may help develop novel therapeutic and/or preventive strategies to ameliorate pain in SCD.

  • Submitted May 31, 2017.
  • Accepted August 23, 2017.