What Does a Sickle Cell Crisis Feel Like?

What Does a Sickle Cell Crisis Feel Like?

One of the most widely discussed symptoms of sickle cell anemia is a sickle cell crisis. This is an episode of pain caused when sickle-shaped red blood cells block the body’s blood vessels and prevent oxygen from flowing.

One can read the biological explanations of such a crisis, but can’t really understand what it feels like without having the disease. So, it is only natural for people to wonder about it. I’m constantly asked what a crisis feels like, but I never know how to respond. I can explain what can be done to lower the chances of a crisis and to help relieve the pain, but describing that pain is a challenge.

I recently shared a post on social media expressing my struggle to respond to such a question, and I asked my followers, most of whom have sickle cell disease, how they would describe the pain. I was met with a range of responses; some I have heard before, while others took me by surprise.

The most popular response was comparing the pain to being stabbed. One person wrote, “I say it feels like being stabbed repeatedly while having a migraine throughout your whole body.”

The second most common response was comparing it to broken bones. Some noted that it feels like “multiple fractures” and “broken bones and glass flowing through my body.”

Others mentioned being electrocuted, while some could not describe it but stated that the pain is truly immense.

One of the more descriptives responses was: “For me, it’s like taking a rubber band & tying it on your finger over and over and over again until you can’t anymore…leave it for a few minutes, take scissors and SNAP that rubber band…now imagine that stabbing pain you will feel on that finger for a split second plays on your joints NONSTOP…until, of course, the painkiller kicks in.”

Even after reading the responses, I still struggle to describe the pain of a sickle cell crisis to others. I have never experienced the pain of being stabbed or electrocuted, and I have never broken a bone in my life (touch wood). So I can’t make those comparisons with total confidence.

I understand that each person with sickle cell disease has a different experience, so I do not discredit the descriptions my followers provided. As for the pain that I experience, all I can say is that it is debilitating and I would not wish it upon anyone.

I always look to others who deal with sickle cell disease with such admiration. We go through so much, and the world is none the wiser. Our strength is unmatched!

Those of you with sickle cell, do you agree with these comparisons? Would you describe the pain differently?

Those who don’t have it, are you surprised? Have you heard these comparisons before? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.


Note: Sickle Cell Anemia News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Sickle Cell Anemia News or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to sickle cell anemia.

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  1. Shannon Williams says:

    Life with sickle cell anemia is one serious challenge. Pain feels different almost every time. Sometimes it like nails being twisted into my joints but other times I can feel it coming and the cluster of it only in certain areas. But I have found that if I think positive and drink lots of water I can handle it.

  2. Wunmi says:

    The pain differs from time to time.

    Your example of tying a rubber band on ones finger is apt and I uses it myself when trying to explain. However, I add that people imagine that finger pain and compound it multiple times over and also to remember that their pain symptoms diminishes quite quickly as they are in control. We Sickle Cell warriors cannot remove that “band, twine etc” and the longer the blockage, the more severe the pain is and we just have to ride it out.

    The annoying thing is that even many Doctors at times think we are just big babies crying and they disregard the severity, this is where I’m lucky with my haematologist team – they know and they work with quickly to alleviate and control.

    I went through hell when I was at University as I the hospital round my Uni were filled with Drs that knows nothing about my condition and all the while the soft tissues of my hip bone were dying but was never treated or even investigated. Upon being back home, my usual team were on the case and I was operated on.

    We guys are a different breed. If other only know.

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