Unless you, or a loved one, have found yourself searching for answers to your unexplained, debilitating nerve pain, there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of Complex Regional Pain Syndrome. Even if you have, you might know it by one of its 25 previous clinical names, such as causalgia or Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy Syndrome.
Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, often abbreviated CRPS, is still not well-known or well-understood, even in the medical community. There is no universally accepted diagnostic test, cure, or explanation for why CRPS affects some people and not others. Yet CRPS is the source of the most severe pain ever observed by medical science — more severe than childbirth, cancer, broken bones, or amputation.
Battling CRPS may feel hopeless, or even make you question your sanity, but you should know that your condition is real, and you are not alone.
Recognizing the Signs
Part of what makes CRPS so difficult to diagnose is the fact that it typically develops as a result of preexisting injuries. According to a study published by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), more than 90% of CRPS patients suffered prior physical trauma in the affected area. Other cases can occur after strokes, or completely spontaneously.
So if you’re part of the 90%, how can you know if what you’re experiencing is CRPS, or simply the pain of the injury itself? There are several signs, but the first ones are usually severity and duration.
CRPS is characterized by constant burning, throbbing, or squeezing pain, out of proportion with the underlying injury. As well as continuing past the expected healing period, CRPS may spread beyond the injury site, affecting entire limbs and, in rare cases, the patient’s trunk area.
If the nature, severity, and duration of your pain leads you suspect CRPS, watch also for these indicative symptoms:
Sensitivity to touch
Sensitivity to cold
Localized spikes or drops in temperature
Skin discoloration, ranging from white and mottled to red or blue
Shiny or tender skin
Left untreated, CRPS can cause irreversible damage. Signs that the condition has progressed to this phase include:
Changes in hair and nail growth
Joint stiffness and immobility
Muscle spasms, tremors, weakness, and atrophy
Although CRPS is treated symptomatically and has no test of its own, your doctor may need to perform tests to rule out other possible causes of your symptoms, such as a blood clot, Lyme disease, arthritis, or small fiber polyneuropathies, before coming to a diagnosis or prescribing treatment.
Frequent Causes of Complex Regional Pain Syndrome
Though the exact cause is unknown, a diagnosis of CRPS is generally associated with confirmed or suspected nerve damage. It’s been theorized that some people may be more susceptible to developing CRPS due to peripheral nerve abnormalities.
In other words, hyperactive nerve fibers connected with the blood vessels can make the nervous system as a whole more vulnerable to damage and malfunction. This would explain why some people can survive catastrophic accidents without developing CRPS, while others have developed it from as little as a medical needle stick.
Nevertheless, most cases of CRPS are caused by significant physical trauma, most commonly fractures or surgery of the hand, wrist, shoulder, foot, ankle, knee, or leg.
Soft tissue injuries, such as cuts, burns, and bruises, can also lead to CRPS, especially when there is damage to an extremity.
Coping with Invisible Pain
When the physical evidence doesn’t accurately reflect the severity of the symptoms, many patients have a hard time convincing others — including medical professionals — to take their conditions seriously. The problem is even worse for women, who make up over 75% of CRPS patients, and who are routinely under-diagnosed and under-prescribed for pain symptoms identical to those of their male peers.
In many cases, this dismissal of your pain is not just frustrating but dangerous. Early diagnosis is crucial to CRPS recovery. To preserve function and prevent permanent damage to your limb, you will need to begin physical or occupational therapy as soon as possible.
With 62% of CRPS patients reporting frequent interference with their jobs, and 86% reporting interference with their mobility, you will likely need support in caring for yourself, re-learning occupational tasks, or transitioning between occupations altogether. No matter how tough you are, pain affects everything from your relationships to your productivity to your participation in therapy, so you may also want to discuss management options such as opioids, anti-inflammatory drugs, or spinal surgery.
While the symptoms of CRPS are not “in your head,” maintaining your mental health is essential to your recovery as well. You may need psychiatric treatment for secondary symptoms such as depression and anxiety, which can arise from and interact with CRPS, deteriorating your overall wellbeing.
What to Do If You’ve Developed CRPS after a Trauma
Always remember that no one can feel your pain but you. If someone else — even a doctor — tells you that there’s nothing to worry about, and your body tells you otherwise, trust your body. Seek a second opinion, or consider reaching out to the Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy Syndrome Association for help.
You will also need to reach out to a legal expert, like those at the Stoddard Firm. Where others may only see the obvious scars of your accident or surgery, we recognize the invisible impact as well. Our experience enables us to explain your condition to judges and juries, so that your settlement reflects the true nature of what you’re going through, and the lifelong expenses you may face as a result.
Reach out to us online or at 678-RESULT to set up a free consultation on how we can help.
Tell us about your concern and request a free, no obligation, confidential legal consultation.
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