Understanding Complex Regional Pain

Determining the cause of chronic pain can prove very difficult. Many people immediately think of arthritis when trying to understand a certain nagging discomfort. But might it be more than that? Complex Regional Pain Syndrome is a serious threat, with a number of potential causes and alarming symptoms.


Definition and Causes

Complex Regional Pain Syndrome is a condition that develops after bodily injures or other medical incidents and is disproportionately severe in levels of pain compared to the initial injury. Usually affecting the arm or leg, it can develop after amputations, fractures, heart attack, stroke, surgery, infections and even emotional stress. It is unclear why these medical incidents trigger this rare form of chronic pain, but many specialists believe extreme inflammation occurs as a result of a dysfunctional relationship between the body’s central and peripheral nervous systems.

The condition can develop in one of two types. The first, also known as Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy Syndrome, makes up 90% of Complex Regional Pain Syndrome cases and develops after certain medical occurrences that range in severity but did not actually affect any nerves in the limb. The second type develops after nerve injury.


There are many symptoms of Complex Regional Pain Syndrome. The most obvious, which often occur first, are joint damage or stiffness, hypersensitivity to cold or touch and chronic pain and swelling in a limb. Other symptoms that may develop afterwards include the following:

  • Muscle spasms and atrophy
  • Decreased range of motion
  • Changes in hair and nail growth
  • Dramatic changes in skin temperature
  • Spotty, white, blue or red skin color
  • Tenderness, shine or thinness in skin

Having these symptoms does not necessarily mean you have Complex Regional Pain Syndrome. However, because the disease is usually irreversible and can even spread to other body limbs if it goes unchecked for too long, it is best to see a doctor immediately for proper diagnosis.

Pain Management

Most treatments usually combine medication and therapies to most effectively manage this kind of chronic pain. Doctors often prescribe medications such as pain relievers, corticosteroids or antidepressants in order to control the pain, reduce inflammation, or treat nerve damage. A number of therapies can also prove effective in easing pain, lessening sensitivity, increasing strength and improving the limb’s range of motion, such as the following:

  • Applying heat and cold
  • Topical patches or creams
  •  Light physical therapy
  • Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS)
  • Spinal cord stimulation

If you are experiencing recurring pain and other symptoms listed above, talk to your doctor about your concerns. Early diagnosis is key to successful treatment of Complex Regional Pain Syndrome. Many people see great progress in their chronic pain, and some cases even go into remission.