Living with CRPS: Complex Regional Pain Syndrome and beyond


Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS) is a progressive, chronic disease that can often be quite stressful and even debilitating.  It is essential to understand the complications that arise due to this disease in order to be able to cope with it in the best possible ways. It is believed that CRPS is caused due to the malfunctioning of the peripheral and central nervous systems.  There are two categories of CRPS namely CRPS I and CRPS II. The first type is often triggered due to a tissue injury and does not have any apparent nerve injury. In the case of patients suffering from CRPS II there is a clear indication of the disease being associated with some nerve injury. Other terms that have been used to describe CRPS are ‘Causalgia’ and Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy Syndrome’. The word ‘Causalgia’ came into  being around the time of the American Civil War to describe a condition when war veterans experienced intense pain even after their wounds had healed. Both men and women, and sometimes even children, can be affected by CRPS. However, it has been noted that it is much more frequent among women rather than men.

Causes of CRPS

The exact causes for CRPS still continue to elude the grasp of professional medical practitioners and specialists. Most of them agree that is does not have a single, definite cause. It is a medical condition that is actually a combination of several other medical complications that share the same symptoms. Having said that, CRPS has often been found to inflict a person who has suffered from:

  • some kind of trauma to the limb (could be a gun shot wound or shrapnel blast)
  • surgery
  • heart attacks
  • fractures
  • infections

Symptoms of CRPS

Some of the symptoms of CRPS include:

  • intense, burning pain often targeting extremities such as arms, legs, hands or feet
  • changes in the skin’s color, texture and sensitivity
  • changes in nail growth patterns
  • changes in hair growth patterns
  • stiffness and swelling in the affected joints
  • disability to move affected body part

Sometimes the pain begins in a finger or toe and travels through the entire arm or leg. The above mentioned symptoms can vary in terms of length and severity. The progression of the disease could be of any of the following types:

  • Type 1: intense, burning pain where the injury has occurred. Rapid nail and hair growth maybe noticed. Muscle spasm and stiffness of joints may also occur. The patient might also experience vasospasm or constriction of blood vessels which can lead to skin discoloration or variation of temperature.
  • Type 2: The pain begins to worsen and intensify. Bones become soft and nails tend to become brittle and cracked. Joints stiffen and muscles begin to weaken further.
  • Type 3: This type is quite severe and the patient may begin to suffer from restrictions in terms of mobility. The pain spread rapidly and begins to affect the entire limb. Marked muscle loss also sets in and the changes in bones and skin often become irreversible.

Some of the other problems faced by patients suffering from CRPS are insomnia, lack of concentration, forgetfulness, irritability, anxiety and depression.

Coping With CRPS

As mentioned earlier, CRPS is a debilitating disease and can often take a very severe toll on both the physical and mental well-being of the patient. The following pointers can be kept in mind while trying to cope with this chronic disease.

  • The intense pain caused due to CRPS can make the patients suffer from sleepless nights. To counter this problem, the patient can try using over-the-counter medication to get some sleep. However, it is advisable to consult a doctor before one begins to take this medication in order to avoid complications that may arise due to multiple drug dosages. The patient can also try having a warm bath with relaxing scents before going to bed.
  • Another problem that arises due to the burning pain traumatizing CRPS patients is their forgetfulness and lack of concentration. This can be tackled to some extent by using a handy notebook or sticky notes to jot down important events or other aspects that may slip their minds.
  • It is not uncommon for CRPS patients to experience irritability and anxiety. This often leads to conflicts with loved ones, family members and friends. Sometimes, the feelings of guilt may escalate, leading to depression. Patients feel alienated from their family and friends and this heightens their sense of loneliness and depression. Anger and frustration can set in and make the patient feel hopeless and depressed.  To avoid this, patients can have an emotional outlet in the form of a journal or diary. Family and friends play a very vital role in waging this war against a rather painful disease. They need to be loving, sympathetic and supportive. If the need arises, the patient can also seek support from a therapist or psychologist.

People with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS) may experience a few or maybe a combination of the above mentioned emotional problems. But with proper preparation, care, and assistance CRPS patients can handle these problems with hope and courage.