In qualitative study published in 2019 in JAMA Network Open by Sinha and colleagues, 15 patients with SCD reported reduced opioid access, increased stigmatization regarding the use of opioids, provider preoccupation with opioid monitoring at the expense of comprehensive care, and increasing difficulty filling opioid prescriptions in pharmacies.6

As African Americans comprise the majority of the population with SCD in the US, the barriers related to the opioid crisis are likely to intersect with racial bias and discrimination by healthcare providers, thus intensifying the treatment challenges these individuals face. For example, “African American patients are more likely than white patients to be suspected of opioid abuse, subjected to more frequent urine screening, and referred to substance abuse services,” wrote Sinha and colleagues.6

Indeed, study participants reporting negative treatment experiences in the emergency department (ED) believed these were due to stigma which they attributed to racial bias (influencing perceptions of drug-seeking) and limited SCD-related knowledge among ED doctors.6 There is an ongoing need for “education of physicians on the unique pathophysiology as well as chronic and acute symptom management in the clinic and ED,” Dr Gupta said.

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Of course, the potential exists for individuals with SCD to develop opioid abuse and addiction. However, it is crucial for providers to avoid making assumptions, check their biases, and adequately evaluate each patient on a case-by-case basis. “Most important in this regard is to differentiate addiction to opioids from opioid tolerance, the withdrawal syndrome, and opioid-induced hyperalgesia,” noted Dr Ballas, who wrote in detail on this topic in a 2020 review.3

In this paper, he explained that the chronic pain in SCD—which he proposed is more accurately described as persistent pain since it differs so greatly from chronic pain in other populations—is unique and thus not well-addressed in the CDC Guidelines for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain.3 In 2019, the CDC issued a clarification letter to emphasize the unique nature of pain management in SCD and cancer and stating that the guidelines are not applicable to these groups.7

Rather, providers should adhere to the National Institutes of Health guidelines for the treatment of SCD.8 Among other points, these guidelines recommend that clinicians respect patients’ self-reports about pain severity and base analgesic selection partly on the patient’s knowledge of the agents and doses that have been effective for them in the past.5

While opioids are currently the most effective therapy for pain in SCD, there is growing interest in identifying effective non-opioid treatment options for this population. Emerging research shows promise for nonpharmacologic approaches that could augment treatment when appropriate and available.

“Cognitive behavioral therapy and integrative approaches such as acupuncture, hypnosis, and other mind-body interventions have shown some effectiveness in clinical studies,” Dr Gupta stated.9 Further investigation of these interventions is warranted, along with clinical trials on potentially effective novel pharmacologic therapies.

Disclosures: Dr Gupta reports receipt of consultancy fees and honoraria from several companies. Please see the original references for a full list of disclosures.9


  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Data & statistics on sickle cell disease. Updated December 16, 2020. Accessed online July 27, 2021.
  2. Osunkwo I, O’Connor HF, Saah E. Optimizing the management of chronic pain in sickle cell disease. Hematology Am Soc Hematol Educ Program. 2020;2020(1):562-569. doi:10.1182/hematology.2020000143
  3. Ballas SK. How I treat acute and persistent sickle cell pain. Mediterr J Hematol Infect Dis. 2020;12(1):e2020064. doi:10.4084/MJHID.2020.064
  4. Sagi V, Mittal A, Tran H, Gupta K. Pain in sickle cell disease: current and potential translational therapies. Transl Res. 2021;234:141-158. doi:10.1016/j.trsl.2021.03.007
  5. Ruta NS, Ballas SK. The opioid drug epidemic and sickle cell disease: guilt by association. Pain Med. 2016;17(10):1793-1798. doi:10.1093/pm/pnw074
  6. Sinha CB, Bakshi N, Ross D, Krishnamurti L. Management of chronic pain in adults living with sickle cell disease in the era of the opioid epidemic: a qualitative study. JAMA Netw Open. 2019;2(5):e194410. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2019.4410
  7. The ASCO Post. CDC issues clarification on guideline for prescribing opioids for chronic pain in patients with cancer and sickle cell disease. Published online April 9, 2019. Accessed online July 27, 2021.
  8. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Evidence-based management of sickle cell disease: expert panel report, 2014. Bethesda, MD: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, US Department of Health and Human Services. Accessed online July 27, 2021.
  9. Sagi V, Argueta DA, Kiven S, Gupta K. Integrative approaches to treating pain in sickle cell disease: pre-clinical and clinical evidenceComplement Ther Med. 2020;51:102394. doi:10.1016/j.ctim.2020.102394

This article originally appeared on Hematology Advisor