Background and methods: Acute episodes of pain are the principal symptom of sickle cell disease, but little is known about the epidemiologic features of these episodes or risk factors for them, nor is it known whether patients with high rates of such episodes die prematurely. We prospectively studied the natural history of sickle cell disease in 3578 patients ranging from newborns to persons up to 66 years old who were followed at clinical centers across the United States.
Results: There were 12,290 episodes of pain in 18,356 patient-years. The average rate was 0.8 episode per patient-year in sickle cell anemia, 1.0 episode per patient-year in sickle beta 0-thalassemia, and 0.4 episode per patient-year in hemoglobin SC disease and sickle beta(+)-thalassemia. The rate varied widely within each of these four groups--e.g., 39 percent of patients with sickle cell anemia had no episodes of pain, and 1 percent had more than six episodes per year. The 5.2 percent of patients with 3 to 10 episodes per year had 32.9 percent of all episodes. Among patients with sickle cell anemia who were more than 20 years old, those with high rates of pain episodes tended to die earlier than those with low rates. High rates were associated with a high hematocrit and low fetal hemoglobin levels. alpha-Thalassemia had no effect on pain apart from its association with an increased hematocrit.
Conclusions: The "pain rate" (episodes per year) is a measure of clinical severity and correlates with early death in patients with sickle cell anemia over the age of 20. Even when the fetal hemoglobin level is low, one can predict that small increments in the level may have an ameliorating effect on the pain rate and may ultimately improve survival. This outcome is particularly encouraging to investigators studying hydroxyurea and other treatments designed to increase the fetal hemoglobin level.