Headaches and Sickle Cell


Headaches and migraines in sickle cell patients are common, and are usually attributed to reduced blood flow to the brain, reduced oxygen supply, or side effects from taking opiates or other drugs like Hydroxyurea. If you are having headaches, it is important to mention this to your doctor and have it completely assessed, because it might be a symptom of another underlying condition. [stextbox id=”alert” color=”000000″ bcolor=”3377d5″ bgcolor=”c7e4e1″]A headache could be the first symptom of a life-threatening complication and should not be taken lightly. [/stextbox]

According to the SC Information Center, headaches could signal meningitis, subarachnoid hemorrhage, or osteomyelitis of the jaw or skull. The headache must be categorized as new, recurrent and unusual, and may also cause nausea, dizziness or fever.

There are many different types of headaches, and the physician should be able to figure out what type of headache you have based on the symptoms. Is it at the front of your head, the back? Is there fever? Does sleep make it better? Can you sleep through the headache?

Types of Headaches are:

  • Tension
  • Sinusitis
  • Hypertension
  • Vascular/Migraine
  • Cluster
  • Meningitis/Encephalitis
  • Subarachnoid hemorrhage: bleeding in the brain
  • Osteomyelitis
  • Bone infraction
  • Brain abscess
  • Brain tumor

Dr. James Eckman has created a detailed tool for physicians to understand, diagnose  and treat sickle cell headaches. Read the FULL LIST in the Differential Diagnosis portion HERE. You might want to print this out for your doctor;)

It is important to find out what type of headache you are having, so that life-threatening conditions can be addressed immediately. If you are getting no relief, request a CT scan or MRI of your head for better visualization. Sometimes, there might be structural damage in your head causing the pain ie. a dead part of bone, a clot blocking off circulation, too much CSF, infected tissue etc.

Treatment: Treatment involves resolving the underlying condition and management of the pain. Most doctors will put you on Migraine type medication usually high in caffeine like Excedrin. Tylenol and some opiates are also prescribed. Another option is Elavil (Nortriptylline) which is used to treat migraines. If you have an infection, he might recommend antibiotics. If you have bone or tissue swelling, steroids like Dexamethasone (Decadron) might be used to reduce the swelling. For those with blood in the brain, abscess or brain tumors, surgery may be required to remove the damaged portion and restore normal blood flow to your brain.

Alternative Remedies: Walmart has a balm called HeadOn that is rubbed on the affected area to ease the headache. If you are having tension or stress headaches, managing stress and reducing areas of stress in your life are integral to getting rid of this issue. Engage in activities you enjoy, use relaxation techniques, bio-feedback, naps, healthy foods, exercise, yoga, water or even Marijuana to get your happy back, stay balanced and get back on track.

It is important to know that headaches might be a symptom for something else going on. Although this often is not the case, knowledge is power. If you are having headaches, please…PLEASE, say something about them to your doctor and make sure he rules out ALL other probable causes.


  1. My daughter is 5years old with sickle cell disease……her headache dont happen often….but when they do its on one spot of her head…..and shes become tired….no fever

  2. My daughter is 19 yrs and for more than 2 months now she has had a serious headache, fever, and internal heat. I have taken her to the hospital and it has not helped. Please advise what to do.

  3. Thank you for this article. I have been searching everywhere on the internet to find answers as to why I’ve been getting these terrible migraine like headaches. I’ve been in the hospital for a week and a half now with a crisis and these headaches. I usually get Dilaudid which has been helping me with my body pain however it hasn’t been working for the headache. The neurologist and medical Drs came up with a solution and started giving me a migraine cocktail, which includes Reglan, Benadryl and Magnesia. As soon as that mixture went into my iv I can’t tell you the breath of relief I felt from not feeling that headache migraine anymore. It was a life saver for me and hopefully it might be a solution for you guys too! They’re are different types of mixtures that they can give you but it all depends on the type of headache and the intensity and of course making sure that you’re cleared from all tests they’ve done on you, ex CT scan, MRIs, x-rays, blood tests, etc. Please make sure to check with your Dr first and see if this may be a solution for you.


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