Complex Regional Pain Syndrome

Complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS) is a chronic condition that causes long-lasting pain. Most cases of pain are temporary. They tell you that your body needs rest in order to heal. But the pain of CRPS doesn't fade with time. Instead, CRPS causes pain that is severe and continuous. It tends to get worse instead of better as days and weeks pass.

In the past, CRPS was called reflex sympathetic dystrophy or causalgia. Causalgia was first used to describe the symptoms of injured soldiers during the Civil War. The soldiers suffered sweating, abnormal skin color, swelling, and chronic, burning pain in a leg or arm. Experts believe that nerve damage is involved in most cases of CRPS.

If you've been diagnosed with CRPS, you may experience persistent, burning pain in  a leg, hand, foot, or another part of your body. You may also have skin so sensitive that even a light touch can cause excruciating pain, along with swelling, sweating, and dramatic changes in skin color and skin temperature.

Unknown cause

Doctors aren't sure what causes CRPS. In some cases the condition occurs after an injury such as an automobile crash or a work-related accident. You may have an obvious nerve injury that leads to CRPS. Or you might develop oversensitive pain receptors after an injury.

The nerve endings that control pain in an area that has been injured may become sensitive to the chemical messengers carried by the sympathetic nervous system. These chemical messengers, called catecholamines, may stimulate CRPS pain. Your doctor may suggest a sympathetic nerve block to find out if your sympathetic nervous system is causing your pain. If the nerve block helps with your pain, your doctor may give you a series of nerve blocks for ongoing relief.

There is no cure for CRPS, but sometimes the symptoms stop on their own. Treatment focuses on relieving the pain with one or more pain medications, antidepressants, or oral steroid drugs.  In addition to sympathetic nerve blocks, physical therapy, spinal cord stimulation, and injections of drugs into the area around the spinal cord may also be used.