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Complex Regional Pain Syndrome
(CRPS, Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD), Causalgia)

Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS) refers to a chronic condition affecting the nerves and blood vessels of one or more extremities. It is distinguished by extremely unpleasant burning sensations, swelling, sweating, color changes, and other distressing symptoms.

There are two types of CRPS:

  • CRPS 1 is also known as reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD). No nerve damage exists with CRPS 1.
  • CRPS 2, also called causalgia, produces similar symptoms after a nerve injury has occurred.

The cause of reflex sympathetic dystrophy is not known. It likely results from several factors. It may involve over activity of the sympathetic nervous system, which directs automatic body functions that a person cannot willfully control. Inflammation also may play a role in the disorder.

Risk Factors:
A risk factor is something that increases your chances of getting a disease or condition. Minor or severe trauma increases the risk of CRPS:
  • Fractures
  • Lacerations
  • Burns
  • Frostbite
  • Surgery
  • Penetrating injury
  • Crush injury
If you experience any of these symptoms do not assume it is due to CRPS. These symptoms may be caused by other, less serious health conditions. If you experience any one of them, see your doctor.

The upper extremities, particularly the hands, are most commonly affected. Symptoms progress and may vary during the course of the condition. Pain may spread from one side of the body to another. Many doctors describe symptoms in terms of stages.

Within hours or days after an injury, symptoms may include:

  • Deep aching or burning pain, typically more severe than expected from the injury
  • Sensitivity to touch or even a light breeze
  • Swelling in the arm or leg
  • Unusual sweating
  • Excessively warm or cool skin
  • Hair and nails changes

Symptoms may increase with stress and worsen over time.

Three and six months after injury:

  • Burning pain moves to above and below the initial injury
  • Swelling in the arm or leg hardens
  • Muscle spasms or weakness develop
  • Extremity becomes cold
  • Hair growth slows
  • Nails become brittle or crack

Six months or later after the injury:

  • A pale, blue, and/or shiny appearance to the skin
  • Limited joint movement
  • Muscle loss
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, and perform a physical exam. Tests may be ordered to rule out other conditions. Your doctor may refer you to a pain specialist for further evaluation and management.

Tests may include the following:

  • X-ray: to check for signs of fracture and evidence of bone loss
  • Bone Scan: a special imaging test checking for early changes in bones
  • Thermogram: measures heat radiating from the body, which may be diminished in CRPS extremity
Treatment aims to relieve pain and improve function. Visit the doctor as soon as possible. Early therapy may lead to better outcomes.

Treatment options include:

Physical Therapy
Active and passive exercises help maintain function. Exercising in a warm pool may feel better than exercising on land.

Transcutaneous Nerve Stimulation (TENS)
A device worn on the skin surface creates a tingling sensation and may relieve pain in some cases.


  • Anti-anxiety medications, low-dose antidepressants, and drugs used to treat epilepsy may be effective
  • Pain medications, such as narcotics may be required to control severe pain
  • Sometimes doctors will order other drugs to control symptoms

Sympathetic Nerve Block
The injection of drugs that prevent the transmission of signals along sympathetic nerves may temporarily relieve pain in some cases.

If the nerve block is successful, a surgeon can permanently destroy sympathetic nerves. In some cases, surgery can worsen symptoms.

Psychological Support
Long-term pain often leads to depression or anxiety. Counseling is often required to help patients deal with chronic pain and loss of function.

Quick mobilization after surgery or injured can help minimize the risk of CRPS in the affected extremity.
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.
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