Sickle Cell Disease Lifestyle

Lifestyle changes will not cure sickle cell disease (SCD). However, when they are combined with other treatments, lifestyle changes may reduce the frequency and severity of acute pain crises.

It helps to recognize and avoid what triggers pain crises for you. Write down what may be possible causes and talk to your doctor about ways to avoid them. For many people, pain crises are triggered by dehydration, overexertion, stress, or alcohol.

Hydration

Fluids help prevent dehydration, which can worsen pain. Dehydration can be caused by:1

  • Sweating in hot weather or during exercise
  • Diarrhea or vomiting
  • Frequent urination

Drinking plenty of water helps prevent pain crises and other complications of SCD. It also helps reduce pain when an acute pain episode is just starting. Carry a water bottle with you, and keep drinking water throughout the day. Aim for at least 8 to 10 glasses of water daily to help reduce sickle cell pain.2

Reduce the amount of caffeine and alcohol you drink. These drinks make urine have more water and can cause dehydration.1

Bed rest and temperature

Bed rest is an important part of at-home treatment during a pain episode. Pain episodes lower the amount of oxygen available to your body. Resting during acute pain can help save oxygen needed for your organs.3

Heating pads and warm baths may help control pain. Cold compresses should not be used because they can make blood vessels more narrow and worsen pain crises.4

Exercise

Regular physical activity helps many aspects of your physical and mental health. Studies have shown that moderate exercise improves blood and oxygen delivery to organs. It also improves overall physical ability, sleep quality, concentration, and social interactions.5

However, be careful to pace yourself and avoid very strenuous activities. Excessive exercise can lower the amount of oxygen available to your body. This can increase the risk of an acute pain crisis. Talk to your doctor about what types of exercise are right for you.3

Stress management

Emotional and social support can help reduce complications. People with SCD have a higher risk for depression and anxiety. Emotional stress often triggers pain and worsens fatigue. Some places to find emotional support include:6,7

  • Support groups and communities
  • Family and friends
  • Therapy

Discussing your situation and health condition in these settings can help reduce stress. You can also learn techniques to reduce stress that have worked for other people.

Things to avoid

Avoid situations that may trigger or worsen a pain crisis. This includes:8

  • Extreme heat or cold
  • Sudden changes in temperature
  • High altitudes (mountain climbing or small, unpressurized aircraft)
  • Dehydration
  • Overexertion
  • Stress

Air travel is associated with some of these triggers, such as stress, dehydration, and low oxygen levels. Prepare for flying by drinking plenty of water before the flight. During the flight, stay hydrated and occasionally move around the cabin when possible.9

In addition, alcohol, tobacco, and cocaine can be harmful to people with SCD. Alcohol can lead to dehydration, which can trigger a pain crisis. Tobacco decreases oxygen flow to the lungs. For people with SCD, this increases the risk of:10

  • Acute chest syndrome
  • Pneumonia (lung infection)
  • Pulmonary hypertension (high blood pressure in the lung)
  • Stroke

Smoking also causes blood vessels to become narrower, which can trigger a pain crisis. The nicotine in tobacco also prevents hemoglobin from binding to oxygen, which can trigger a pain episode. Cocaine increases the risk of organ damage and can cause stroke and even death in people with SCD.10

It is best to reduce your exposure to alcohol, tobacco, and any drugs not prescribed by your doctor. Talk to your doctor for help avoiding drugs and alcohol or quitting smoking.

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Written by: Matthew Zajac | Last reviewed: January 2021