What Is a Sickle Cell Crisis?


What is sickle cell disease?

Sickle cell disease is an inherited red blood cell disorder that causes hemoglobin to become irregularly shaped. Hemoglobin is a protein in red blood cells that delivers oxygen throughout the body. Normal red blood cells with hemoglobin are smooth, flexible and round. Sickle cell disease results in hemoglobin evolving into a sickle shape. They also become stiff and stick together, causing difficulty moving through blood vessels. Sickle cell disease can cause blockages in blood flow, resulting in anemia, pain, infections, organ failure, etc.

What is a sickle cell crisis?

A sickle cell crisis occurs when the curved sickle cells clump together and form blockages in small blood vessels. Intense pain is the result of interrupted blood flow to certain organs, bones and muscles in the body. Low oxygen levels can occur when the small blood vessels in the lungs are affected. A sickle cell crisis may also be referred to as a “painful crisis” or “painful event.”


The main symptom experienced with a sickle cell crisis is pain that occurs suddenly. The pain may be stabbing, dull, throbbing or sharp. Most often, the pain is located in the chest, stomach, lower back, arms, legs, hands, and feet. Other symptoms associated with a sickle cell crisis include the following:

  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Painful erections
  • Weakness
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Jaundice


A sickle cell crisis is caused by the blockages of blood flow that result from sickle cell disease. The curved shape and rigid form of the sickle cells make it difficult for them to pass through small blood vessels, which can lead to painful blockages.

Risk factors

The biggest risk factor of a sickle cell crisis is having sickle cell disease. Aside from this, certain factors can trigger the onset of a sickle cell crisis, including the following:

  • Infections
  • High altitudes
  • Stress
  • Dehydration
  • Temperature changes
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