Sickle Cell Disease: A Review of Nonpharmacological Approaches for Pain

J Pain Symptom Manage. 2016 Feb;51(2):163-77. doi: 10.1016/j.jpainsymman.2015.10.017. Epub 2015 Nov 17.


Context: Sickle cell disease (SCD) is a life-threatening condition that affects more than seven million people worldwide. The most common complication experienced by persons living with SCD is pain. Evidence supports the use of nonpharmacologic therapies in managing psychological and social complications of pain in persons with SCD, but there is little consensus if these approaches can also be applied for the treatment of pain in SCD.

Objectives: To describe and synthesize the use of nonpharmacological therapies for reducing pain of any type and origin in persons with SCD.

Methods: A literature search was conducted using PsycINFO, PsycARTICLES, PubMed, CINAHL, and Embase. Databases were searched using the following terms: sickle cell, pain, and nonpharmacological therapies. Interventions were graded for methodological quality and categorized as 1) peer-support group therapies, 2) educational/psychological therapies, and 3) skill-based therapies.

Results: Twenty-eight nonpharmacological interventions for persons with SCD were examined. Of these studies, a wide variety of nonpharmacological interventions were tested. Twelve studies yielded significant improvements in pain, three studies reported no positive effect or differences between experimental and control conditions on pain or a pain-related outcome, and one study reported a negative or detrimental intervention effect.

Conclusion: Approximately half of the studies reviewed demonstrated success in alleviating pain, suggesting that patients are able to use nonpharmacological interventions to reduce pain with some degree of success. Questions still remain regarding the efficacy and generalizability of these interventions for persons with SCD.

Keywords: Sickle cell disease; nonpharmacological; pain; pain management.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anemia, Sickle Cell / complications*
  • Anemia, Sickle Cell / therapy*
  • Chronic Pain / etiology*
  • Chronic Pain / therapy*
  • Humans
  • Pain Management / methods