Chronic regional pain syndrome (CRPS) is notoriously difficult to diagnose and treat, primarily because the root cause of the disorder is not well understood. However, the consensus is that CRPS is caused by an overreaction of the nervous system to injury.
This theory is supported by the fact that CRPS often occurs after a minor injury, such as a sprained ankle, and the pain is usually exaggerated or unproportionate to the original injury.
What Is CRPS?
CRPS is a chronic condition that causes debilitating pain, swelling, and changes in skin color and temperature in the extremities. The pain can be spontaneous or evoked and mainly manifests as a burning or throbbing sensation.
The condition mainly affects one hand, foot, arm, or leg but can spread to other body parts if left untreated. It is estimated that every year, nearly 200,000 Americans suffer from chronic regional pain syndrome.
CRPS and the Immune System
CRPS remains largely mysterious, and there is still too much to learn about its causes and potential treatments. However, its effects on the body are apparent; the pain and swelling associated with CRPS can impact a person’s quality of life, making everyday activities difficult or even impossible.
The condition can also lead to immobility, depression, anxiety, and sleep disorders. All of these conditions can weaken the immune system and make a person susceptible to infections.
Excessive and prolonged pain signaling also contributes to immune system dysregulation, leading to an overproduction of proinflammatory cytokines. Cytokines are small proteins that modulate immune response and inflammation.
The overproduction of these proteins can initiate and propagate an autoimmune response where the body attacks and damages healthy nerve fibers, soft tissues, and organs. This further exacerbates the symptoms of CRPS and makes the person more susceptible to infections.
How is CRPS Diagnosed?
CRPS is a clinical diagnosis, which means it’s diagnosed based on the signs and symptoms the patient is experiencing rather than objective tests.
To make a diagnosis, your doctor will ask about your symptoms, review your medical history and conduct a physical examination. They may also order blood tests, sweat production tests, and body imaging studies to rule out other conditions with similar symptoms.
Given the complexity and mysterious nature of CRPS, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to treatment. Doctors and pain specialists typically use a trial-and-error approach to find the best combination of treatments for each individual patient.
CRPS treatment typically falls into two categories: pain management and rehabilitation. Pain management aims to ease the pain and other symptoms associated with CRPS and may include medication, ketamine infusions, sympathetic nerve blocks, neural stimulation, desensitization, and psychotherapy.
On the other hand, rehabilitation is focused on helping the patient regain function and mobility in the affected limb. These can include physical therapy, occupational therapy, and exercises. Some rehabilitative measures like exercises can also help improve pain tolerance.
For best results, most doctors or pain management specialists will use a multidisciplinary approach that combines various treatment options.
While there is still much unknown about CRPS, there is no doubt that the condition can profoundly impact your overall health and wellbeing. If you suspect you may be suffering from CRPS, it’s advisable to seek professional help as soon as possible. Your doctor will conduct a conclusive diagnosis and recommend the best course of action.