Saudi Journal of Gastroenterology
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Year : 1997  |  Volume : 3  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 29-33
Gastroenterological manifestations of sickle cell disease

Department of Surgery, Dammam Central Hospital, Dammam, Saudi Arabia

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Date of Submission16-Jul-1996
Date of Acceptance05-Nov-1996


Sickle cell hemoglobinopathy is a common genetic disorder which is prevalent in certain areas of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It is characterized by repeated hemolytic and vasoocclusive crises which lead to widespread vascular occlusion and subsequent multiple organ infarctions. Affected individuals present with a wide variety of gastrointestinal disorders mimicking vasoocclusive episodes causing diagnostic confusion and delays that may catch the unwary clinician. This article briefly reviews the gastroenterological manifestations of sickle cell disease.

How to cite this article:
Meshikhes AWN. Gastroenterological manifestations of sickle cell disease. Saudi J Gastroenterol 1997;3:29-33

How to cite this URL:
Meshikhes AWN. Gastroenterological manifestations of sickle cell disease. Saudi J Gastroenterol [serial online] 1997 [cited 2023 Jan 28];3:29-33. Available from:

Sickle cell hemoglobinopathy is a common genetic disorder affecting many individuals in certain countries. The disease is prevalent in the eastern and south western provinces of Saudi Arabia. In the heterozygous state, i.e. sickle cell trait is due to the presence of HbS gene on one of the homologous pair of chromosome II, both adult and sickle hemoglobins (HbA and HbS) are present and the condition is usually asymptomatic except under extreme conditions of very low oxygen tension. In homozygous state, presence of the abnormal hemoglobin (HbS) renders red blood cells susceptible to sickling under reduced oxgen tension leading to sequestration and thrombosis in the arterioles with subsequent ischemic infarction which may affect any organ in the body. The frequency and severity of these sickle cell crises are determined by the level of fetal hemoglobin (HbF) which is believed to play a protective role against vasoocclusive crisis and acute chest syndrome but does not always prevent them [1] . The gastrointestinal tract is by no means immune from these generalised effects occurring during any crisis. These effects may present to medical and surgical gastroenterologists posing a significant medical problem and a diagnostic dilemma especially for those who are not aware of this condition. This article aims to highlight the common gastroenterological manifestations of this common genetic disorder to familiarize the unwary clinicians.

   Abdominal pain in sickle cell disease (SCD) Top

Abdominal pain is quite common in sickle cell disease but, its exact etiology is not known. It is usually secondary to vaso-occlusion and may be a sole complaint or associated with generalized pain crisis in other parts of the body. When it is a solitary complaint, it mimics a wide range of abdominal surgical emergencies which may trap the clinician to offer surgical intervension with its attendant risks. This can be avoided by careful history, clinical examination and specific laboratory and radiological investigations. The differential diagnosis include splenic causes such as acute splenic sequestration crisis, splenic infarction and abscesses, hepatobiliary causes such as biliary colic, acute cholecystitis, hepatic crisis, hepatitis and liver abscesses [2],[3],[4],[5],[6] . Peptic ulcer disease and ischemic colitis need to be considered in the differential diagnosis of abdominal pain in SCD [7],[9],[10],[11] . Other possible causes include bone marrow infarction of the vertebral bodies with nerve root entrapment, enlarged mesentric and retroperitoneal lymph nodes, acute pancreatitis and other general surgical conditions common to the general population such as acute appendicitis [12],[13],[14],[15] . The diagnosis of acute splenic sequestration crisis (ASSC) is a clinical one based on sudden massive painful enlargement of the spleen with a rapid fall in hemoglobin and hematocrit due to extensive pooling of the blood in the spleen. Splenic abscess occurs secondary to infection of splenic infarcts and presents with pain in the left upper quadrant with splenic tenderness, fever and leucocytosis. The diagnosis of splenic abscess is confirmed by ultrasound or CT scan. Although the standard treatment for ASSC and splenic abscess is splenectomy, there is a recent trend to drain the latter percutaneously avoiding the high morbidity associated with surgical intervention in selected cases and to avoid splenectomy with its attendant risks such as postsplenectomy sepsis.

   The stomach and duodenum Top

There is no conclusive evidence to suggest that the incidence of peptic ulcer in SCD is higher than that in the general population despite the depressive nature of this illness. However, dyspeptic symptoms are more common in sickle cell disease patients [16] .

Upper gastrointestinal endoscopy was abnormal in 20 out of 51 patients with upper abdominal symptoms (14 with duodenal ulcer; 4 with gastric ulcer and 2 with gastritis) [17] . The etiology of these ulcers is associated with the reduced mucosal resistance as a result of repeated ischemic infarction during sickle cell crisis [8] . Healing of such ulcers is usually impaired due to vascular impairment and the rate of complications such as stenosis, hemorrhage and perforation is high [8],[9] . Rao et al reported a fatal case of bleeding duodenal ulcer in a 14-year-old SCD patient; the first case of duodenal ulcer encountered by the author in over 600 cases [8] . The diagnosis was confirmed by endoscopy which was repeated eight weeks after intensive medical therapy [8] . Ulcer healing may be promoted by monthly packed red cell transfusions over six months. Surgical option should be offered early for poorly healing ulcers.

   The intestine Top

Ischemic colitis occurs in very young sicklers due to massive intravascular sickling [10] . Exact pathology is not known, but cytokines such as interleukin and tumor necrosis factor may play an important role. Kimmelstiel has suggested that the pre-shock state occurring during sickle crisis cause mesenteric vascular thrombosis with subsequent vascular necrosis [18] . However, presence of extensive collaterals in the colon renders this complication rare. The diagnosis should be considered in any SCD patient presenting with severe abdominal pain, rectal bleeding and signs of localized peritonism. Presence of leucocytosis, fever and persistent abdominal pain indicates bending bowel infarction, and signs of peritonitis mean perforation necessitating exploratory laparotomy [11] . In the early stages the diagnosis can be suspected if thumbprinting is present on abdominal radiograph or barium enema [10],[19] . The treatment is by nasogastric suction, broad spectrum antibiotics and hemodynamic support including exchange blood transfusion [11] . Repeated clinical examination is essential, but exploratory laparotomy should be undertaken without delay in presence of high fever, leucocytosis and signs of peritonism or peritonitis.

   Hepatobiliary system Top

Sickle cell disease patients are at an increased risk of hepatic necrosis, cholelithiasis, choledocholithiasis and acute hepatic failure.

   The liver in SCD: Top

Liver biopsy in SCD shows sinusoidal dilatation, Kupffer cell hyperplasia and erythrophagocytosis [20]. These findings were confirmed in an autopsy series which reviewed 70 patients with hemoglobin SS and SC disease and showed 34% of patients to have focal necrosis, 20% with portal fibrosis and 16% with micronodular cirrhosis [21] . Abnormal liver function tests are present in many patients with SCD, but the hepatic origin is doubtful. Hemolysis and liver disease contribute to the elevation of direct and indirect bilirubin. Although serum alkaline phosphatase is elevated in adults and rises further with crises, this rise may originate from the bone rather than the liver [22] . Prothrombin time is prolonged in more than 21% of patients. The abnormalities in liver function tests tend to be more severe in vasoocclusive episodes.

A variety of causes such as obstruction of sinusoids by sickle cells with subsequent hepatic infarction during vasoocclusive episodes, cholelithiasis and cardiac failure may contribute to hepatocellular damage in SCD, but by far the most common causes are those related to repeated blood transfusion such as hemosiderosis and viral hepatitis C and B (HCV and HBV) which lead to chronic liver disease [23] . Grmer et al reviewed the liver biopsies of nine patients referred for elevated aminotransferases and alkaline phosphatase and found hemosiderosis in all patients, cirrhosis in two and chronic hepatitis in two [23] . All liver biopsies showed erythrophagocytosis, sinusoidal dilatation an kupffer cell hyperplasia. Although these histological findings were also seen in 90% of autopsied cases, the prevalence of chronic liver disease appears to be low [22],[23] . An association between focal nodular hyperplasia (FNH) and SCD has been questioned [24] . This may be explained by repeated blockage of small vessels by sickle cells and sequestration with subsequent ischemic infarction and necrosis and this act as a stimulant to development of FNH but this needs to be substantiated [25] .

   Hepatic crisis Top

Diggs estimated hepatic crisis to affect 10% of patients with SCD admitted to hospital [26] . This was confirmed by another study of 378 admissions over 10-year period [27] . It may be difficult to distiguish this from viral hepatitis but transaminases are unlikely to be higher than 1000 in the former and fall more gradually in the latter. Liver biopsy reveals sickle cell changes only.

   Acute hepatic failure Top

There have been few reported cases of this very severe complication of sickle cell disease [22],[28] . Patients presented with abdominal pain, severe jaundice and tender hepatomegaly. Prothrombin time is very prolonged and liver biopsy shows features typical of sickle cell disease with or without centrilobular necrosis [22],[27],[29] . Yohannan et al reported two children with hepatitis A virus infection presented with fulminant hepatic failure; one of them died and the other made full recovery [30] . The treatment consists of intravenous dextrose, oral neomycin, lactulose, vitamin K and packed cell transfusion. Although patients may develop progressive coma and death, reversible intrahepatic cholestasis and full recovery after exchange transfusion has been reported [27],[29],[31] .

   Cholelithiasis Top

Patients with SCD are at an increased risk of developing pigmented gallstones. This risk increases with age. It is estimated that 80% of patients will have radiologically detected gallstones by the age of 40 years [32] . The features of hepatic crisis may be indistinguishable from that of acute cholecystitis e.g. right upper quadrant pain, jaundice, leucocytosis and raised transaminases [33] . This may create diagnostic confusion which can be avoided by cholecystectomy. However, surgery in SCD has a potentially high morbidity rate, especially if preoperative hemoglobin S is greater than 45%. The introduction of minimally invasive techniques is believed to be safer in SCD and associated with minimal morbidity and mortality [4],[5] . Its impact on management of SCD patients with symptomatic gallstones is apparent to a degree that some hematologists are screening their young SCD patients for gallstones and referring them much earlier for laparoscopic cholecystectomy [34] . Certain precautions to guard against vasoocclusive crises have to be undertaken. This entails adequate hydration, oxygenation, prophylaxis against sepsis and measures to avoid hypothermia. Furthermore, preoperative simple or exchange blood transfusion to reduce HbS to less than 45%, a level at which sickling crisis are less likely is helpful [32] . In our early experience with LC in SCD patients, none of our 30 patients needed exchange transfusion and simple transfusion with packed red blood cells to raise Hb to at least 10% was sufficient and safe [4] . A single mortality in our series has prompted us to change our preoperative transfusion policy. All patients with high HbS are now given preoperative exchange transfusion to reduce HbS to less than 45% and thereby reducing the risk of vasoocclusive crisis [32] .

The role of laparoscopic cholecystectomy for asymptomatic gallstones is controversial. Although, the natural history of asymptomatic stones suggests no future problems in the majority of patients, the author as well as others advocate laparoscopic cholecystectomy in young SCD patients with asymptomatic gallstones to avoid future complications and diagnostic confusion [34],[35] .

   Choledocholithiasis Top

Choledocholithiasis is a major complication of gallstones presenting as obstructive jaundice or acute biliary pancreatitis. Preoperative endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) should be performed selectively in any patient with dilated common bile duct on ultrasonography (>7 cm) or acute biliary pancreatitis before laparoscopic cholecystectomy is performed. The author advocates routine endoscopic papillotomy in any patient with SCD undergoing ERCP prior to laparoscopic cholecystectomy even in the absence of common bile duct stones.

   Conclusion Top

The medical and surgical gastroenterologist may be faced with sickle cell patients presenting with symptoms and signs of various gastroenterological and hepatobiliary conditions which may mimic abdominal sickle cell crises. Careful history and clinical examination augmented by specific laboratory and radiological tests are essential to avoid unnecessary and often life-threatening surgical exploration. If surgery is warranted, precautions to guard against vasoocclusive events such as adequate hydration, oxygenation and exchange transfusion together with prophylactic measures against sepsis, deep venous thrombosis and hypothermia are adhered to, to ensure safe surgical intervention with minimal morbidity and mortality. Close collaboration between medical and surgical staff is of paramount importance.

   References Top

1.Higgs DR, Aldridge BE, Lamb J, et al. The interaction of alphathalassemia and homozygous sickle cell disease. N Engl J Med 1982;206:1441-6.  Back to cited text no. 1    
2.Toply JM, Rogers DW, Stevens MCG, Serjeant GR. Acute splenic sequestration and hypersplenism in the first 5 years in homozygous sickle cell disease. Arch Dis child 1981;56:765-9.  Back to cited text no. 2    
3.Solanki DL, Kletter GG, Gastro O. Acute splenic sequestration crises in adults with sickle cell disease. Am J Med 1986;80:985-90.  Back to cited text no. 3    
4.Meshikhes AN, Al-Dhurais SA, Al-Jama A, Al-Faraj AA, Al­Khatir NS, Al-Abkari H. Laparoscopic cholecystectomy in patients with sickle cell disease. JR Coll Surg Edinb 1995;40:383-5.  Back to cited text no. 4    
5.Ware RE, Kinney TR, Casey JR, Pappas TN, Meyers WC. Laparosocpic cholecystectomy in young patients with sickle hemoglobinopathies. J Pediatr 1992;12058-61.  Back to cited text no. 5    
6.Chong SK, Dick MC, Howard ER, Mowat AP. Liver abscess as an anusual complication in sickle cell anemia. J Pediatr Gastroenterol Nutr 1993;16:221-2.  Back to cited text no. 6  [PUBMED]  
7.Hein GE, McCalla RL, Thorne GW. Sickle cell anemia with report of a case with autopsy. Am J Med Sci 1927;173;763­-72.  Back to cited text no. 7    
8.Rao S, Royal JE, Conard, Jr HA, Harris V, Ahuja J. Duodenal ulcer in sickle cell anemia. J Pediatr Gastroenterol Nutr 1990;10:117-20.  Back to cited text no. 8    
9.Serjeant GR, May H, Patrick A, Slifer ED. Duodenal ulceration in sickle cell anemia. Trans R See Trop Med Hyg 1973;67:59-63.  Back to cited text no. 9    
10.Gange TP, Gagnier M. Ischemic colitis complicating sickle cell crisis. Gastroenterology 1983;84:171-4.  Back to cited text no. 10    
11.Baruchet S, Delifer JC, Sigalet D, Hong A, Oudjhane K,Chen MF. Pseudomembraneous colitis in sickle cell disease responding to exchange transfusion. J Pediat 1992;121:915-7.  Back to cited text no. 11    
12.Lievy FE, Schnabel TG. Abdominal crises in sickle cell anemia. Am J Med Sci 1932;183:381- 91.  Back to cited text no. 12    
13.Tomlinson WJ. Abdominal crises in sickle cell anemia: a clinico­pathological study of eleven cases with a suggested explanation of their cause. Am J Med Sci 1945;209:722-41.  Back to cited text no. 13    
14.Sheehan AG, Machida H, Butzner JD. Acute pancreatitis in a child with sikle cell anemia. J Nat Med Assoc 1993;85:70-2.  Back to cited text no. 14    
15.Meshikhes AN, Al-Faraj AA, Al-Sugjayer A, Al-Meer Z. Successful combined laparoscopic cholecystectomy and appendicectomy in a patient with sickle cell disease. Bahrain Med Bull 1996; 18:104-5  Back to cited text no. 15    
16.Sergeant GR, Richards R, Barbour PRH, Miller PR. Relatively benign sickle cell anemia in 60 patients aged over 30 in the West Indies. Br Med J 1986;iii:86-91.  Back to cited text no. 16    
17.Lee MG. Therumalai CHR, Terry SI, Serjeant GR. Endoscopic and gastric acid studies in homozygous sickle cell disease and upper abdominal pain. Gut 1989;30:569-72.  Back to cited text no. 17    
18.Kimmelsteil P. Vascular occlussion and ischemic infarction in sickle cell disease. Am J Med Sci 1948;216:11-9.  Back to cited text no. 18    
19.Williams LF, Wittenberg J. Ischemic colitis: a useful clinical diagnosis, but is it ischemic ? Ann Surg 1975;182:439-­48.  Back to cited text no. 19    
20.Rosenblate HJ, Eisenstein R, Holmes AW. The liver in sickle cell anemia. A clinical-pathologic study. Arch pathol 1970:90:135-45.  Back to cited text no. 20    
21.Bauer TW. Moore GW, Hutchins GM. The liver in sickle cell disease. A c I inicopatho logic study of 70 patients. Am J Med 1980;69:833-7.  Back to cited text no. 21    
22.Green TW, Conly CL, Berthrong M. The liver in sickle cell anemia. Bull J Hopkins Hosp 1953;92:99-122.  Back to cited text no. 22    
23.Gomer GM, Ozick LA, Sachdev RK, Kumar S, Taunk J, Smith JA. et al. Transfusion-related chronic liver disease in sickle cell anemia. Am J Gastroenterol 1991;86:1232-4.  Back to cited text no. 23    
24.Heaton ND, Pain J. Cowan NC, Salisbury J, Howard ER. Focal nodular hyperplasia of the liver: a link with sickle cell disease ? Arch Dis Child 1991;66:1073-4.  Back to cited text no. 24    
25.Markowitz RI, Hatch HT, Ritchie WGM, HuffDS. Focal nodular hyperplasia of the liver in a child with sickle cell anemia. American J Radiology 1980; 134:594-7.  Back to cited text no. 25    
26.Diggs LW. Sickle cell crises. Am J Clin Pathol 1965;44:1-4.  Back to cited text no. 26    
27.Sheehy TW. Sickle cell hepatopathy. South Med J 1977;70:533-­8.  Back to cited text no. 27  [PUBMED]  
28.Henderson AB. Sickle cell anemia. Am J Med 1950;9:757-65.  Back to cited text no. 28  [PUBMED]  
29.Owen DM, Aldridge JE, Thompson RB. An unusual hepatic sequela of sickle cell anemia: a report of five cases. Am J Med Sci 1962;249:175-85.  Back to cited text no. 29    
30.Yohannan MD, Arif M, Ramia S. Etiology of icteric hepatitis and fulminant hepatitis failure in children and the possible predisposition to hepatic failure by sickle cell disease. Acta Pediatr Scand 1990;79:201-5.  Back to cited text no. 30    
31.Sheehy TW. Law DE, Wade BH. Exchange transfusion for sickle intrahepatic cholestasis. Arch Intern Med 1980; 140:136­-8.  Back to cited text no. 31    
32.Bond LR, Harry SR, Hom MEC, Dick M, Meire HB, Bellingham AJ. Gallstones in sickle cell disease in the United Kingdom. Br Med J 1987;295:234-6.  Back to cited text no. 32    
33.Schubert T. Hepatobiliary system in sickle cell disease. Gastroenterology 1986;90:2113-21.  Back to cited text no. 33    
34.Tagge EP, Othersen Jr B Jackson SM, et al. Impact of laparoscopic cholecystectomy on the management of cholelithiasis in children with sickle cell disease. JPediatr Surg 1994;29:209-13.  Back to cited text no. 34    
35.Meshikhes AN. Laparoscopic cholecystectomy inpatients with sickle cell disease. J Ir Coll Phys Surg 1995;24:91-2.  Back to cited text no. 35    

Correspondence Address:
Abdul-Wahed Nasir Meshikhes
Consultant Surgeon, Damman Central Hospital, P.O. Box 18418, Qatif 31911
Saudi Arabia
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