Inhaled nitric oxide for treating pain crises in people with sickle cell disease

Tarek Aboursheid, Omar Albaroudi, Fares Alahdab

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Background In people with sickle cell disease, sickled red blood cells cause the occlusion of small blood vessels which presents as episodes of severe pain known as pain crises or vaso-occlusive crises. The pain can occur in the bones, chest, or other parts of the body, and may last several hours to days. Pain relief during crises includes both pharmacologic and non-pharmacologic treatments. The efficacy of inhaled nitric oxide in pain crises has been a controversial issue and hypotheses have been made suggesting a beneficial response due to its vasodilator properties. Yet no conclusive evidence has been presented. This review aims to evaluate the available randomised controlled studies which address this topic. Objectives To capture the available body of evidence evaluating the efficacy and safety of the use of inhaled nitric oxide in treating pain crises in people with sickle cell disease; and to assess the treatment's relevance, robustness, and validity, in order to better guide medical practice in the fields of haematology and palliative care (since recent literature seems to favour the involvement of palliative care for those people). Search methods We searched the Cochrane Cystic Fibrosis and Genetic Disorders Group's Haemoglobinopathies Trials Register. Unpublished work is identified by searching the abstract books of the European Haematology Association conference; the American Society of Hematology conference; the British Society for Haematology Annual Scientific Meeting; the Caribbean Health Research Council Meetings; and the National Sickle Cell Disease Program Annual Meeting. Date of most recent search: 19 September 2019. We also searched ongoing study registries, date of most recent search: 26 September 2019. Selection criteria Randomised and quasi-randomised trials comparing inhaled nitric oxide with placebo, or standardized way of treatment of pain crises in people with sickle cell disease. Data collection and analysis Two authors independently assessed trial quality and extracted data (including adverse event data). A third author helped clarify any disagreement. When the data were not reported in the text, we attempted to extract the data from any table or figure available. We contacted trial authors for additional information. We assessed the quality of the evidence using the GRADE criteria Main results We identified six trials, three of which (188 participants) were eligible for inclusion in the review. There were equal numbers of males and females; and most participants were adults, although one small trial was conducted in a children's hospital and recruited children over the age of 10 years. All three parallel trials compared inhaled nitric oxygen (80 ppm) to placebo (room air) for four hours; one trial continued administering nitric oxide (40 ppm) for a further four hours. This extended trial had an overall low risk of bias; however, in the remaining two trials we had concerns about the risk of bias from the small sample size and additionally a high risk of bias due to financial conflicts of interest in one of these smaller trials. We were only able to analyse some limited data from the eight-hour trial and report the remaining results narratively. The time to pain resolution was only reported in one trial (150 participants), showing there may be little or no difference between the two groups: with inhaled nitric oxide median 73.0 hours (95% confidence interval (CI) 46.0 to 91.0) and with placebo median 65.5 hours (95% CI 48.1 to 84.0) (low-quality evidence). No trial reported on the duration of the initial pain crisis. Only one large trial reported on the frequency of pain crises in the follow-up period and found there may be little or no difference between the inhaled nitric oxide and placebo groups for a return to the ED, risk ratio 0.73 (95% CI 0.31 to 1.71) or for re-hospitalisation, risk ratio 0.53 (95% CI 0.25 to 1.11) (150 participants; low-quality evidence). There may be little or no difference between treatment and placebo in terms of reduction in pain score at any time point up to eight hours (150 participants). The two smaller trials reported a beneficial effect of inhaled nitric oxide in reducing the visual analogue pain score after four hours of the intervention, but these trials were small and limited compared to the first trial. Analgesic use was reported not to differ greatly between the inhaled nitric oxide group and placebo group in any of the three trials, but no analysable data were provided. The median duration of hospitalisation was reported by two trials, in the largest trial the placebo group had the shorter duration and in the second smaller (paediatric) trial hospitalisation was shorter in the treatment group. Only the largest trial (150 participants) reported serious adverse events, with no increase in the inhaled nitric oxide group during or after the intervention compared to the control group (acute chest syndrome occurred in 5 out of 75 participants from each group, pyrexia in 1 out of 75 participants from each group, dysphagia and a drop in haemoglobin were each reported in 1 out of 75 participants in the inhaled nitric oxide group, but not in the placebo group) (low-quality evidence). Authors' conclusions The currently available trials do not provide sufficient evidence to determine the effects (benefits or harms) of using inhaled nitric oxide to treat pain (vaso-occlusive) crises in people with sickle cell disease. Large-scale, long-term trials are needed to provide more robust data in this area. Patient-important outcomes (e.g. measures of pain and time to pain resolution and amounts of analgesics used), as well as use of healthcare services should be measured and reported in a standardized form.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberCD011808
JournalCochrane Database of Systematic Reviews
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 11 2019

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pharmacology (medical)


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