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 subject of controversy; hypotheses have been made suggesting a beneficial response due to its vasodilator properties, yet no conclusive evidence has been presented. This review aimed to evaluate the available randomised controlled studies addressing this topic. Objectives: To capture the 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 relevance, robustness, and validity of the treatment to better guide medical practice in the fields of haematology and palliative care (since the recent literature seems to favour the involvement of palliative care for such people). Search methods: We searched the Cochrane Cystic Fibrosis and Genetic Disorders Group Haemoglobinopathies Trials Register. We searched for unpublished work in the abstract books of the European Haematology Association conference, the American Society of Hematology conference, the British Society for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. The most recent search was conducted on 1 September 2021. We also searched ongoing study registries on 19 November 2021. Selection criteria: Randomised and quasi-randomised trials comparing inhaled nitric oxide with placebo for treating pain crises in people with sickle cell disease. Data collection and analysis: Two review authors independently assessed trial quality and extracted data (including adverse event data), with any disagreements resolved by consulting a third review author. When the data were not reported in the text, we attempted to extract the data from available tables or figures. We contacted trial authors for additional information. We assessed the certainty of the evidence using the GRADE criteria. Main results: We included three trials involving a total of 188 participants in the review. There were equal numbers of males and females. 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 parts per million (ppm)) to placebo (nitrogen gas mixed with oxygen or 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, we had concerns about risk of bias for the remaining two trials due to their 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, reporting the remaining results narratively. Evidence from one trial (150 participants) suggested that inhaled nitric oxide may not reduce the time to pain resolution: 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-certainty 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 return to the emergency department (risk ratio (RR) 0.73, 95% CI 0.31 to 1.71) and rehospitalisation (RR 0.53, 95% CI 0.25 to 1.11) (150 participants; low-certainty 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. 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. Two trials reported the median duration of hospitalisation: in the largest trial the placebo group had the shorter duration, whilst 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, and dysphagia and a drop in haemoglobin were each reported in 1 out of 75 participants in the inhaled nitric oxide group) (low-certainty evidence). Authors' conclusions: The currently available evidence is insufficient 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 standardised manner.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberCD011808
JournalCochrane Database of Systematic Reviews
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 8 2022

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pharmacology (medical)


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