Sickle Cell Anemia: Affected Locations, Signs & Treatments

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  • 0:53 Who Is at Risk?
  • 2:02 Signs and Symptoms
  • 3:25 Dactylitis
  • 4:07 Sickle Cell Crisis
  • 4:52 Treatment
  • 6:36 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Rebecca Gillaspy

Dr. Gillaspy has taught health science at University of Phoenix and Ashford University and has a degree from Palmer College of Chiropractic.

Sickle cell anemia is an inherited anemia in which red blood cells are sickle-shaped due to an abnormality in their hemoglobin. Learn who is at risk of this disorder, why symptoms such as pain and fatigue occur and how the condition is treated.

Sickle Cell Anemia

Blood vessels are a lot like highways. Blood vessels provide passage for blood cells, and highways provide a path for vehicles.

Both of these systems work fine when conditions are normal, but what happens if an obstacle appears that disrupts the usual flow? This is what we see with a condition known as sickle cell anemia, which is an inherited form of anemia in which the red blood cells take on a crescent or sickle shape. These sickle-shaped cells are sticky and stiff and create a traffic jam within the bloodstream, much like a truck carrying a wide load holds up traffic.

In this lesson, we will take a look at some of the important aspects of sickle cell anemia, including who is affected, common signs that result due to this blockage of blood flow, and treatment options.

Who Is At Risk?

Now, we mentioned that sickle cell anemia is inherited. This means that the disease is passed down from parent to child. Children born with the disease inherit a gene from both mom and dad that affects hemoglobin, which is the oxygen-carrying protein of the red blood cell. This atypical hemoglobin is what distorts the shape of the red blood cell into the characteristic sickle shape.

Because this condition is inherited, we would expect the disease to be more prevalent in certain groups of people, and this is the case with sickle cell. The gene, and therefore the condition, is seen in people that come from Africa; Mediterranean countries, such as Greece, Italy and Turkey; India; Saudi Arabia; and parts of South or Central America, as well as the Caribbean. In the United States, sickle cell anemia most commonly affects African Americans, occurring in about 1 out of every 500 African American births. But it also affects a fair number of Hispanics, occurring in about 1 out of every 36,000 Hispanic American births.

Signs and Symptoms

Now, an important thing to remember with sickle cell anemia is that it is a type of anemia. So, when we consider the signs and symptoms of sickle cell anemia, we can expect to see many that are typical of any anemic patient. These would include fatigue, shortness of breath, pale skin, dizziness and headaches.

Why do we expect to see these symptoms with an anemic patient? Well, we know that having an anemia means that the person's blood has a deficiency of red blood cells or a decreased amount of hemoglobin. Without enough of these oxygen-carrying cells in circulation, the body can't get enough oxygen to meet its need, leaving the person with these common symptoms.

A person with sickle cell anemia may also show signs of jaundice, or yellowing of the skin and eyes. This is because abnormally-shaped cells do not last very long in circulation, and therefore get destroyed more readily. Instead of the normal 120 days or so that a healthy red blood cell lives, a sickle-shaped cell last only about 10 to 20 days before it is targeted by the body for destruction.

Jaundice occurs because the rapid breakdown of the red blood cells releases a byproduct called bilirubin. Bilirubin is a yellow pigment, and because there is more of it in the body, the body tissues take on a yellowish tint.

Signs and Symptoms: Dactylitis

In the case of sickle cell anemia, we see that the severity of the symptoms will vary from patient to patient. Some individuals will experience mild symptoms, while others will have symptoms so severe that hospitalization may be required.

We also see that some symptoms are mostly associated with children, such as dactylitis, also known as Hand-Foot Syndrome. This is a symptom that appears in babies or young children and may be the first sign of the disease. It shows up as swollen hands and feet, and it comes about because the stiff and sticky sickle cells block blood flow in the tiny blood vessels of the children's extremities.

Signs and Symptoms: Sickle Cell Crisis

Now, all of these symptoms are due to the unusual shape of the red blood cells. This deformity gets them targeted for early destruction, and it also causes them to get stuck and block circulation.

If you ever had your foot 'fall asleep' because you crossed your legs too long and cut off your circulation, then you know the result is a painful period of pins and needles. In a patient with sickle cell anemia, blood flow is cut off to limbs, organs and other body tissues, and as you can guess, this results in one of the most common symptoms of sickle cell anemia: pain. These painful episodes caused by inadequate blood flow are known as sickle cell crisis. The pain may be felt in the bones, and the episodes may last from a few hours up to a week or more.

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