Complex regional pain syndrome is a condition that can cause a tremendous amount of pain. This pain typically lasts for months on end and can greatly impact someone both physically and emotionally. Unfortunately, not a lot of people know about complex regional pain syndrome and all of the complexities that come with it.
This means that people who live with this syndrome are often left with questions and concerns about what they can do to better cope with the symptoms. Below, we go over some of these questions as well as general information to spread awareness on this rare and painful condition.
What Is Complex Regional Pain Syndrome?
Researchers estimate that complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS) impacts about 100,000 people each year. This syndrome was once known as reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD) but has since had a name change to express all of the painful symptoms that come along with this.
According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, CRPS is a condition that can either be acute (does not last long) or chronic (long-term concern). Usually, this syndrome affects specific parts of the legs or arms, such as the palm of the hand or the top of the foot—though it can also spread through the whole limb. This condition usually occurs after an injury or surgery to the affected limb because the nerves are impaired by the trauma.
Doctors or other medical experts, such as physical therapists, can diagnose CRSP based on an evaluation of the patient’s symptoms and medical history. They also usually do tests to rule out other disorders, which could include:
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or magnetic resonance neurography (MRN)
- Bone scans
If nothing apparent shows up after these tests and the person continues to have excruciating pain or other aligning symptoms, the doctor can officially give the diagnosis of complex regional pain syndrome. From there, the goal is to treat the symptoms as quickly and painlessly as possible.
What Are the Symptoms of CRPS?
The sensation of complex regional pain syndrome can be hard for people with CRPS to describe but often feels like:
- Pins and needles
- Sudden pain
- Constant pain
Furthermore, the area that is affected by CRPS is usually highly sensitive to the touch. This means that even wearing a layer of clothing over the limb can be extremely painful. In addition to this, exposure to hot or cold temperatures can trigger a lot of pain as well.
Symptoms of CRPS involve more than just experiencing pain in the region affected, though that is a large aspect of this condition. Other symptoms include:
- The affected area being cold or warm to the touch
- The affected area turning different colors (i.e., red or purple)
- Hair and nails growing at different rates
- Muscle spasms
- Joint pain
- Mental health distress
How Do You Treat CRPS?
The treatment options for CRPS can range based on the type of this condition that someone has, their medical history, and the current severity of their symptoms. For some people with CRPS, treatment begins by simply exposing the affected area to a light touch. For many, working with a physical or occupational therapist is the most effective way to treat this condition. To elaborate further, treatment options for CRPS include:
- Physical or occupational therapy—PT and OT can help the nerves and surrounding systems to recover properly. A physical or occupational therapist might assign stretches or strength-building exercises to help with the affected area.
- Desensitization therapy—This is a challenging but often effective form of treatment for CRPS. As the name suggests, it involves “desensitizing” the area to hypersensitivity. This could mean running different textured objects (such as velvet or a feather) over the limb or even dunking the area in ice water. The goal with this is to make the area less reactive to pain over time.
- Medication—In some instances, medication can be useful for people with CRPS. Though anti-inflammatory medications typically only work to reduce the joint pain of the surrounding areas, other interventions such as antidepressants can be helpful in slowing down pain signals from reaching the brain. Stronger pain medications like opioids might be beneficial in the short-term while the area recovers. However, as with any condition, check in with your doctor to learn more about the pros and cons with taking medication.
- Spinal cord stimulation—Lastly, spinal cord stimulation is a possible treatment in situations where other pain relief methods are ineffective. To do this treatment, a medical device is placed under the skin that can be activated to send minor electrical pulses to the nerves in the spinal cord. This can confuse pain signals from reaching your brain, or at least slow them down so that you don’t feel as much pain as suddenly.
Because complex regional pain syndrome can be so painful and the pain can progress if it’s left untreated, it’s important to find the right pain management as soon as possible. Communicating with your doctor, healthcare providers, and chronic pain advocacy groups would be steps toward getting treatment that is effective in reducing your pain.
What’s the Outlook for People with CRPS?
In most cases, complex regional pain syndrome is a condition that improves over time with the right therapy interventions. Of course, there are rare occasions in which the nerves do not repair themselves and the pain is prolonged. If treatments are not working, the best approach would be to utilize pain management techniques.
With CRPS, traditional methods such as applying heat or ice to the area can actually make the pain worse, especially if it’s not done under medical supervision. This is where alternative treatment options, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, might come in handy as a way to cope with the pain that doesn’t seem to be going away.
When it comes to living with pain for any extended amount of time, people can really struggle both physically and emotionally. For people with CRPS or any other chronic condition, having the right support is instrumental in feeling better in every sense of the phrase. Being part of a community and having the right support team can help to prevent mental health distress and improve your overall quality of life.
If you have a chronic condition and are in need of support, join the Pain Resource Community. Learn about complex regional pain syndrome, self-advocacy, and more from a network of people who know better than anyone else what it’s like to live with constant pain. Here, you might find the right support that eases your discomfort and leaves you with a smile.
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