Complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS) is a term used to describe a group of painful conditions. Examples of earlier names for these conditions include reflex sympathetic dystrophy, causalgia, and Sudeck's atrophy.
Pain is the main symptom of CRPS. Most people have severe pain in an arm or a leg. Usually the pain is in a part of your body where you had surgery or an injury. The pain is usually constant and either shooting, sharp, or burning. The pain is much worse and it lasts much longer than you would expect for the kind of injury you had. Some people may not have had an injury or surgery before the pain started, but most people have.
As with other subjective experiences, such as love, fear, or anger, there's no way to objectively measure pain. We asked Sean Mackey, MD, PhD, chief of the Pain Management Division and associate professor of anesthesia at Stanford University School of Medicine, to explain the unpleasant sensation we all feel in different ways.
Women in their mid-30s are more likely to get CRPS, but it can happen to anyone at any age.
CRPS will usually get better, either by itself or with treatment. More than 8 out of 10 people who have CRPS feel better, or are completely better, in 18 months.1 But for a few people, symptoms can last for many months or years.
What causes CRPS?
The cause of CRPS is not well understood. CRPS is a reaction the body has after an injury, and the reaction is more severe than would be expected. This reaction happens in the limb (arm or leg, usually) and in the brain. The nerves and skin in the arm or leg are affected and so are the nerves in the brain. CRPS, and the pain and disability that comes with it, is very real. CRPS is not "in your mind."
The pain usually starts after a limb or joint has had a serious injury, such as a broken bone, a gunshot wound, or a deep wound. The injury might also be caused by an accident, a fall, or surgery. It can even be caused by a minor injury such as a sprain. In about 1 out of 10 people, CRPS starts without an apparent reason.1
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms of CRPS are usually only in one arm or leg and include:
Pain that's much more severe and lasts much longer than what you would expect for the kind of injury you may have had.
Skin that may be blotchy or shiny.
Skin that may feel hotter or colder than other areas of your body.