Complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS), formerly known as reflex sympathetic dystrophy syndrome (RSDS), is a chronic pain condition in which high levels of nerve impulses are sent to an affected site. Experts believe that CRPS occurs as a result of dysfunction in the central or peripheral nervous systems.
CRPS is most common in people aged 20 to 35. The syndrome also can occur in children; it affects women more often than men. CRPS may be heightened by emotional stress. There is no cure for CRPS.
CRPS most likely does not have a single cause, but rather results from multiple causes that produce similar symptoms. Some theories suggest that pain receptors in the affected part of the body become responsive to catecholamines, a group of nervous system messengers. In cases of injury-related CRPS, the syndrome may be caused by a triggering of the immune response. Such a triggering may lead to the inflammatory symptoms of redness, warmth, and swelling in the affected area. For this reason, it is believed that CRPS may represent a disruption of the healing process.
The symptoms of CRPS vary in their severity and length. One symptom of CRPS is continuous, intense pain that gets worse rather than better over time. If CRPS occurs after an injury, it may seem out of proportion to the severity of the injury. Even in cases involving an injury only to a finger or toe, pain can spread to include the entire arm or leg. In some cases, pain can even travel to the opposite extremity. Other symptoms of CRPS include:
CRPS also involves changes in skin temperature: skin on one extremity can feel warmer or cooler compared to the opposite extremity. Skin color changes also are apparent as the skin is often blotchy, pale, purple, or red. The texture of skin also can change, becoming shiny and thin. People with CRPS may have skin that sometimes is excessively sweaty.
There is no specific diagnostic test for CRPS, but some testing can rule out other conditions. Triple-phase bone scans can be used to identify changes in the bone and in blood circulation. Some health care providers may apply a stimulus (such as heat, touch, cold) to determine whether there is pain in a specific area.
Making a firm diagnosis of CRPS may be difficult early in the course of the disorder when symptoms are few or mild. CRPS is diagnosed primarily through observation of the following symptoms:
Since there is no cure for CRPS, the goal in treating CRPS is to relieve painful symptoms associated with the disorder. Some therapies used include psychotherapy and physical therapy. In addition, medications such as topical analgesics can help relieve the symptoms of CRPS. Other medications that may be useful are opioid pain medications, corticosteroids, antidepressants, and anti-seizure drugs. Other treatments include:
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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 03/14/2016