Individuals with sickle cell disease (SCD) who receive medical marijuana to treat pain may require fewer visits to the hospital, according to a new study by Yale Cancer Center (YCC) researchers published in the journal Blood Advances. Adults with SCD who requested and obtained medical marijuana were admitted to the hospital less frequently than those who did not obtain it.
“There is a need for other options for management of pain so that individuals with SCD do not have to go through the time, hardship, and expense of hospitalization and can manage their symptoms at home,” said the study’s lead author Susanna Curtis, MD, a former postdoctoral fellow at YCC and first author on the study. “Previous studies have shown that cannabis and cannabinoid products can effectively treat chronic pain associated with other conditions such as cancer.” SCD is the most common inherited red blood cell disorder in the United States, affecting an estimated 100,000 people. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, SCD affects one out of every 365 Black or African American births and one out of every 16,300 Hispanic American births. SCD is characterized by abnormal, sickle-shaped red blood cells that can adhere to and block blood vessels, preventing oxygen from reaching the tissues. When this occurs, individuals living with SCD experience severe pain events which may drive them to seek emergency care. It is estimated that there are more than 100,000 SCD-related hospital stays in the United States each year.
Curtis and her team examined data from 50 individuals with SCD at the Adult Sickle Cell Program at Yale New Haven Hospital who were certified for medical marijuana use. Of those certified, 29 obtained medical marijuana and 21 did not. Those who obtained medical marijuana visited the hospital less frequently on average over the following six months. Several patients even reduced their hospital admission rates by three, four, or five visits. Receiving medical marijuana was not associated with a change in emergency room or infusion center visits, total health care utilization, or opioid use. Researchers did not observe any change to hospitalization rates in individuals who did not obtain medical marijuana.
Curtis suggested a possible reason for the reduced hospitalization rates could be that medical marijuana helps individuals better tolerate their pain at home. She also highlighted the need for further research to understand the efficacy, side effects, and drug interactions of various cannabis products on SCD treatment. “My patients are living with a very difficult disease that causes them a lot of pain. We need controlled trials to look at each product, and the effects of how it is taken, so that we can offer regulated, pharmaceutical-grade treatment options.”