Complex Regional Pain Syndrome
(CRPS; Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy [RSD]; Causalgia; Sympathetically Maintained Pain)
Complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS) refers to a chronic condition that affects the nerves and blood vessels of one or more limbs.
There are two types of CRPS:
- CRPS 1, previously called reflex sympathetic dystrophy or RSD, has no observable nerve damage.
- CRPS 2, previously called causalgia, produces similar symptoms after a verified nerve injury has occurred.
Complex Regional Pain Syndrome
The cause of CRPS is not known. The condition likely results from several factors. It may involve overactivity of the sympathetic nervous system. Inflammation may also play a role in the disorder.
Factors that may increase your risk of CRPS include:
- Limb immobilization
- Longer than normal healing time
- The use of certain medications such as ACE inhibitors
Symptoms usually appear after an injury. The most important symptom of CPRS is prolonged pain that may be constant or severe. Pain is typically described as burning, throbbing, aching, squeezing, or shooting.
Symptoms of CRPS change over time and may include:
- Sensitivity to touch or even a light breeze
- Swelling in the arm or leg
- Unusual sweating patterns
- Excessively warm or cool skin
- Hair and nails that become brittle and crack
- Abnormal movement in the arm or leg, such as a tremor, jerking, or spasms
- A pale, blue, and/or shiny look to the skin
- Limited joint movement
You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.
The common characteristics of CRPS include:
- An initial traumatic or painful event
- Pain in the upper or lower extremities
- A recent heart attack or stroke
- Continuing pain in the limb that is out of proportion to any stimulus, such as pain with even light touch
- Swelling, changes in skin blood flow, movement problems, or temperature changes only in the affected limb
- No other cause for the symptoms
Tests may be ordered to rule out other conditions. You may be referred to a pain specialist.
Images may be taken of your bodily structures. This can be done with:
The electrical activity in your nerves and muscles may need to be tested. This can be done with:
You may need to have your body's heat measured. This can be done with a thermogram.
You may need to have your autonomic nervous system evaluated. This can be done with quantitative sudomotor axon reflex test (QSART), resting sweat output (RSO), or the resting skin temperature (RST).
Treatment aims to relieve pain and improve function. Early therapy may lead to better outcomes. In some cases, the condition goes away on its own; this is more common in children. Talk with your doctor about the best treatment plan for you. Options include:
Physical and Occupational Therapy
Physical and occupational therapy may help reduce pain and increase mobility.
Cognitive behavioral therapy may help you manage pain. It is a form of talk therapy that focuses on how the way you think affects the way you feel and act.
Your doctor may recommend the following medications:
- Pain relievers
- Antiseizure medications
- Topical pain relievers that are applied to the skin
A surgical procedure called sympathectomy can permanently destroy sympathetic nerves. In some cases however, surgery may worsen symptoms.
There are no known ways to prevent CRPS.
International Research Foundation for RSD/CRPS
Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy Syndrome Association
Complex regional pain syndrome. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated January 6, 2014. Accessed June 18, 2014.
Complex regional pain syndrome fact sheet. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke website. Available at: http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/reflex_sympathetic_dystrophy/detail_reflex_sympathetic_dystrophy.htm. Updated April 16, 2014. Accessed June 18, 2014.
Harden RN, Bruehl SP. Diagnosis of complex regional pain syndrome: signs, symptoms, and new empirically derived diagnostic criteria. Clinical Journal of Pain. 2006;22:415-419.
8/10/2007 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed: Zollinger PE, Tuinebreijer WE, Breederveld RS, Kreis RW. Can vitamin C prevent complex regional pain syndrome in patients with wrist fractures? A randomized, controlled, multicenter dose-response study. J Bone Joint Surg Am. 2007;89:1424-1431.
11/9/2009 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed: Cacchio A, DeBlasis, E, Necozione S, di Orio F, Santilla V. Mirror therapy for chronic complex regional pain syndrome type 1 and stroke. N Engl J Med. 2009;361(6):634-636.
4/24/2014 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed: Wise JN, Weissman BN, et al. American College of Radiology (ACR) Appropriateness Criteria for chronic foot pain. Available at: http://www.acr.org/~/media/ACR/Documents/AppCriteria/Diagnostic/ChronicFootPain.pdf. Updated 2013. Accessed June 18, 2014.
Last reviewed May 2014 by Marcin Chwistek, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.