What Is Complex Regional Pain Syndrome and How Is It Treated?

General Neurology located in Albuquerque, NM

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What Is Complex Regional Pain Syndrome and How Is It Treated?

Complex regional pain syndrome can be disabling. When you’re in pain, you need the right treatment to bring you relief and improve your functioning so that you can have a good quality of life.

Complex regional pain syndrome is an umbrella term that refers to a pain syndrome that develops after an injury to an arm or leg. It causes sudden or excess pain that is much more severe than what’s normal after. Swelling and changes in skin color are other characteristics of CRPS.

Neurologist Timothy Ownbey, DO, of Neurology Specialists of Albuquerque is devoted to finding effective solutions for both common and complex neurological issues, including CRPS. In most cases CRPS improves over time, however, in some cases it is long-lasting and can significantly disrupt your daily life. 

If you’re diagnosed with CRPS, learning about this rare condition and how we approach treatment can help you start the journey to healing. 

What is complex regional pain syndrome?

Under normal circumstances when you’re injured symptoms like inflammation and pain occur temporarily and resolve once you heal. In CRPS pain lasts long after the initial injury. Improper function of peripheral nerve fibers that communicate pain signals to the brain trigger lasting pain, even from the slightest touch. 

It can take a few months to a few years for the injured nerve to heal. In some cases, the nerve does not heal and pain becomes long-term. The outcome depends on the severity of the initial injury as well as age and lifestyle factors.

What are the symptoms of CRPS?

Symptom severity and duration of CRPS varies from person to person. The following are typical symptoms associated with CRPS. 

Sudden or constant pain

CRPS often causes pain that occurs without warning. It might be persistent or change with activity. Some people describe the sensation as "burning" or "pins and needles," or as though the affected limb is being squeezed.

Even if the original affected area may be small, if nerves remain irritated, discomfort might extend to include most or all of the arm or leg over time. Pain and other symptoms may appear in the same spot in the opposite leg in rare cases. 

This "mirror pain" is thought to be the result of subsequent spinal cord nerve cell involvement. As the wounded nerves heal, mirror discomfort reduces and eventually goes away.

Enhanced sensitivity

Allodynia is a condition in which a person experiences enhanced sensitivity in the affected area, making mild touch and normal physical contact extremely painful. A slight bump of the affected limb against an object may send searing pain through your body. 

Skin temperature changes

Warmer or cooler sensations may be felt in the injured arm or leg compared to the opposite limb. The skin on the affected limb may turn blue, purple, or red. These skin symptoms usually change over time, pointing to a problem with blood flow in the area.

Changes to skin texture

Inadequate oxygen and nutrient flow might cause the skin on the affected limb to change texture over time. It can become thin in certain circumstances, or thick and scaly in others. 

Abnormal nail or skin growth

Hair and nails on the affected limb may grow unnaturally quickly or not at all. All are controlled by the nervous system and influenced by local blood circulation.

Joint stiffness and muscle weakness

Reduced mobility causes tendons and ligaments to become less flexible, which is a common condition. Tight ligaments or tendons can irritate or squeeze nerves, causing CRPS in persons who haven't had any injuries.

Many people with CRPS report being unable to move the affected body part. This is typically caused by discomfort and problems in the sensory input that aids in movement coordination.

Complex regional pain syndrome treatment

The goal of treatment for CRPS is to reduce your pain and restore function to the affected limb so that you can maintain your quality of life. Early treatment is key to preventing complications. If left untreated the affected limb can stiffen over time and movement becomes difficult.

Treatment of CRPS involves a combination of approaches. Your treatment plan may involve:

  • Desensitization
  • Medications
  • Sympathetic nerve blocks
  • Spinal cord stimulation
  • Dorsal root ganglia stimulation
  • Physical therapy and occupational therapy

CRPS raises the risk of anxiety and depression. Talk therapy is often incredibly helpful in helping people with CRPS cope and feel better.

Effective treatment for CRPS requires a comprehensive treatment plan by a provider with experience treating this complex pain syndrome. To learn more about treatment options for CRPS, contact our Albuquerque office to schedule a visit with Dr. Ownbey or book your request here on our website.