Complex regional pain syndrome, or CRPS, is an uncommon type of chronic pain that generally occurs after an injury or traumatic event. CRPS usually affects a certain limb after an injury, surgery, stroke, or heart attack, but the pain itself is prolonged and uncharacteristically out of proportion to the injury itself. Complex regional pain syndrome is most common in middle-aged individuals, with more women affected by the condition than men.

While CRPS is normally associated with injury or trauma, it is not entirely understood what actually causes it. Different patients with the same injury do not always develop CRPS, for example. There are, however, two known types of complex regional pain syndrome–Type 1 and Type 2. Type 1, formerly known as sympathetic dystrophy syndrome, occurs after an injury where there was no direct damage to the nerves in the affected limb. This type affects 90% of people with the condition. With Type 2, once known as causalgia, there is a direct nerve injury in the affected limb.

Even though CRPS is somewhat rare, it’s important to be aware of the signs and symptoms as early detection is key to treating this condition. 

Signs of complex regional pain syndrome include continuous burning or throbbing pain in the affected limb. There may also be heightened sensitivity to touch or cold in the limb. The most noticeable symptom is often a change in the skin’s temperature, color, or texture, which ranges from shiny mottled red to white or blue. Other symptoms include joint stiffness or swelling, or a decreased ability to move the affected limb.

At more progressed stages of the condition, the tissues in the limb may even start to atrophy or waste away. It can also be experienced as a general muscle tightening, called contracture, where hands, fingers, feet, or toes can become contracted into a fixed position.

For some individuals, the pain and symptoms associated with complex regional pain syndrome may go away on their own. Other patients may experience the pain for years. As already noted, the most effective treatment for the condition is that which is started early on in the course of the illness.

Contact your doctor immediately if you begin experiencing any of the symptoms associated with complex regional pain syndrome. 

Your doctor may be able to diagnose the condition through a number of tests, including bone scanes, X-rays, and MRIs. Once diagnosed, the condition is often treated through medication, physical therapy, biofeedback relaxation techniques, or spinal cord manipulation. Emerging treatment plans for CRPS include low doses of intravenous immunoglobulin or ketamine, or even the use of hyperbaric oxygen.

If you suffer from complex regional pain syndrome, or know somebody who does, remember that CRPS is a chronic pain condition that can impact many areas of life. Ask for help or provide the support that person needs by reviewing the 10 Ways to Help Others With Chronic Pain post.

Image by Holly Lay via Flickr


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