Is Cannabis an Effective Treatment for Sickle Cell Anemia? What the Research Says
Article written by
Dipak HemrajHead of Research and Education
Content reviewed by
Dr. Lewis JasseyMedical Director - Pediatric Medicine
Table of contents
This report looks at cannabis as a treatment for sickle cell diseases. Before we dive in, here’s a brief overview of the scientific research Leafwell has been reviewing for this article.
Personalized Cannabis Guidance
Total Studies = 13
Types of Study = Meta-Analysis (9); Animal Studies (3); Human Trials (1)
No. of Positive Results = 7
No. of Inconclusive Results = 4
No. of Negative Results = 2
Potentially Useful Cannabis Compounds
THC, THCV, CBG, CBD, CBN, Beta-Caryophyllene, Pinene
- THC, CBD, and beta-caryophyllene may help treat sickle pain and reduce the need for more powerful, addictive analgesics (e.g., opioids)
- CBG and CBD may help treat bacterial infections and reduce reliance on antibiotics
- An alternative to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) for those who cannot tolerate them
- THC and pinene may help ease breathing
- Beta-caryophyllene may help treat pain and inflammation associated with SCDs, as well as malaria.
- Daily cannabis users show fewer complaints and hospitalizations due to sickle pain.
- Use of cannabis may increase the likelihood of hospitalization and the risk of vaso-occlusive (blood blockage) crises.
- Smoking cannabis may not be ideal, as it can damage the lungs and circulatory system, potentially increasing the risk of acute chest syndrome.
- Some studies show weak or inconclusive results when it comes to using cannabis to treat chronic pain – the evidence for cannabis’ uses for SCDs is also limited, with current studies limited by low sample sizes and the potential of bias.
What is Sickle Cell Anemia?
Sickle cell anemia is a type of sickle cell disease (SCD). SCDs are a group of blood disorders that result in abnormalities in the blood cells. The most common is sickle cell anemia. SCDs result in a rigid, sickle-like shape that affects the red blood cell’s ability to carry oxygen. This can cause anemia, swelling, bacterial infections, and an increased likelihood of stroke.
SCDs mainly affects people of Sub-Saharan origin, where about 80% of cases of sickle cell anemia are found. People from Arabia and India are also affected due to the high incidence of malaria in such places, where sickle cells can prevent malaria parasites from attaching to the red blood cells. However, the protective effect of the sickle cell trait does not apply to people with sickle cell disease, and sufferers may have an increased likelihood of contracting malaria.
How are Sickle Cell Diseases (SCDs) Currently Treated?
There are a wide variety of treatment methods for SCDs, including:
- NSAIDs like diclofenac and naproxen
- Opioids in cases of extreme pain and vaso-occlusive crisis
- Antibiotics for those suffering from acute chest syndrome
- Stroke prevention – Transcranial Doppler ultrasound (TCD) detects blood vessels partially obstructed by sickle cells by measuring the rate of blood into the brain.
- Blood transfusion
- Bone marrow transplant, which may potentially cure SCDs in children
- Breathing exercises
- Physical therapy
- Psychological therapy
Why Medical Cannabis Could Be Useful for SCDs
Here’s what the research shows us so far:
- Both THC and CBD may help treat “sickle pain” and reduce reliance on more addictive painkillers.
- The antimicrobial properties of cannabinoids may help treat acute chest syndrome and reduce reliance on antibiotics
- The bronchodilatory (i.e., airway opening) effects of pinene and THC may help ease breathing
- Low doses of THC and moderate to high doses of CBD may help reduce anxiety
- Cannabinoids may have neuroprotective effects, making them useful in the treatment of stroke and other traumatic brain injuries (TBIs)
- CBD may increase blood flow into the brain, helping alleviate anxiety and improving memory function
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Cannabinoids, Terpenes & Flavonoids for Sickle Cell Disorders
With cannabis, using the right cannabinoids, terpenes and flavonoids can be vital in achieving the desired results. The research points to these compounds as potentially useful for sickle cell diseases:
- Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) – for its vasodilatory effects and ability to ease breathing, as well as reduce pain and inflammation
- Cannabidiol (CBD) – for its anti-inflammatory, mood-lifting, and antimicrobial properties
- Cannabigerol (CBG) – for its neurogenic (creation of new brain cells) properties
- Beta-caryophyllene – for its anti-inflammatory and painkilling properties
- Pinene – for its antimicrobial properties and the ability to open up the airways and ease breathing
- Tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV) – to help treat neuropathic (nerve) pain, which has been estimated to occur in approximately 25-40% of adolescents and adults with SCD.
There is little information on dosing medical marijuana for sickle cell diseases. Far more information is needed, and clinical trials where dosage and cannabinoid, terpene, and flavonoid content are taken into account need to occur.
With that said, low-to-moderate doses of THC and moderate to high doses of CBD may be useful for those who have SCD. Choosing cannabis varieties (or “strains,” as they’re often mislabeled) with plenty of pinene and beta-caryophyllene may be helpful.
Medical Marijuana for Sickle Cell Diseases: Overall
There is some good-quality evidence to suggest that medical marijuana and naturally-derived plant cannabinoids (phytocannabinoids) may be beneficial for the treatment of conditions like sickle cell anemia. However, some studies are showing inconclusive or even negative results, suggesting that more research on a larger number of people is needed to fully understand cannabis’ positives and negatives for the treatment of SCDs.
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