Complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS) is a neurological disorder that triggers intense pain sensations, skin swelling, decreased function, and other symptoms in one part of an extremity — either your leg, foot, arm, or most commonly, your hand.
CRPS is rare, but when it occurs, it’s often on the heels of an acute nerve injury caused by a forceful trauma to a limb — usually a bone fracture. Even more rarely, it may emerge following less intense tissue damage from surgery, a stroke or heart attack, an infection, or even a routine ankle sprain.
At Orthopedic Center of Palm Beach County in Atlantis, Boynton Beach, and Wellington, Florida, our seasoned team of board-certified orthopedists and pain management experts specialize in providing comprehensive, interventional care for patients with CRPS.
Here, we discuss the ins and outs of this still not-fully-understood condition, including who may have a higher risk of developing it and why early medical intervention offers the best shot at symptom relief and control.
CRPS is a neurological disorder that causes unexplained intense pain, diminished function, and other disruptive symptoms in part of your limb, usually in the aftermath of some degree of injury or tissue damage. CRPS pain is characteristically out of proportion with your initial injury or trauma that precipitated your condition.
The most common CRPS symptom is constant or intermittent localized pain — usually in the form of a burning, stinging, or tearing sensation deep inside your affected limb. Other sensory changes and symptoms in a CRPS-affected extremity may include:
Most CRPS cases emerge 4-6 weeks after a traumatic injury or medical event, but the condition can develop without a known trigger. CRPS tends to worsen without treatment and may even spread to the opposite limb or another area of your body.
Experts suspect CRPS is the product of an abnormal inflammatory immune response that impairs normal peripheral and/or central nervous system function. The resulting dysfunction triggers an overreaction to pain signals that your nervous system simply can’t shut off.
CRPS is diagnosed by its subtype or what’s known about its underlying cause:
CRPS-I doesn’t stem from a previously confirmed trauma or nerve injury. Previously known as reflex sympathetic dystrophy syndrome, CRPS-I accounts for less than 10% of all CRPS cases.
CRPS-II, previously known as causalgia, arises from an associated, confirmed trauma or nerve injury. CRPS-II accounts for over 90% of all CRPS diagnoses. The most common injury associated with CRPS-II is a broken bone — especially wrist fractures.
While anyone can develop CRPS, the condition mostly affects middle-aged adults 40-60 years old and is slightly more common in women than men. Up to four in five cases (80%) occur in people of European ancestry. CRPS is rare among children younger than five as well as elderly adults.
The main risk factor for CRPS is a forceful traumatic injury to your limb, but sustaining such an injury doesn’t necessarily mean you have an increased risk of developing this neurological disorder. Why? Most people who sustain such injuries don’t go on to develop CRPS as a result.
Just as there’s no definitive diagnostic test for CRPS, there’s no way to accurately assess your risk of developing the disorder. What you can do, however, is remain aware of the condition’s possibility in the wake of a limb injury and get help if you experience any extremity pain symptoms that concern you.
It’s possible for CRPS pain and symptoms to gradually disappear on their own without any type of medical intervention or therapy. However, this isn’t the norm; usually, CRPS pain persists and progresses, causing worsening problems over time, including tissue wasting and chronic muscle spasms.
The goal of CPRS intervention is to reduce pain, improve mobility, and keep the condition from progressing. At Orthopedic Center of Palm Beach County, we take a comprehensive approach to CRPS that incorporates proven interventional pain management strategies like: