Complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS) is a debilitating condition that can lead to immense pain in the limbs. The cause of CRPS is not well understood. However, it’s thought to be caused by dysfunction, damage, or injury to the nervous system.
This causes the body to overreact to stimuli, resulting in extreme pain in one of the extremities. CRPS pain is characterized by burning sensation, stiffness, swelling, change in skin color and temperature, and increased sensitivity to touch. Although the symptoms of CRPS are mainly physical, the condition can also have a profound effect on your brain.
CRPS and The Brain
Brain imaging studies show that CRPS patients have significant structural changes in areas of the brain responsible for processing pain and emotions and coordinating movement compared to healthy individuals.
Another study found that CRPS patients had reduced gray matter and an abnormal interaction between white and gray matter in the brain. These changes in structure alter how the brain processes information and may contribute to the intractable pain, disability, and emotional distress often seen in CRPS patients.
The changes may also lead to cognitive difficulties or “brain fog” – a common CRPS symptom characterized by poor concentration, memory loss, and poor decision-making. CRPS may also lead to secondary psychological complications such as anxiety and depression, which can further compound cognitive difficulties.
Currently, there is no cure for CRPS. However, numerous treatment options can help manage the pain and other symptoms. CRPS treatment focuses on relieving pain and improving overall function.
The first line of treatment for CRPS is typically medication. Over-the-counter pain relievers such as aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen may prove sufficient for mild to moderate pain. More severe cases may require stronger prescription medications such as antidepressants, anticonvulsants, and corticosteroids.
Physical therapy is an integral part of treating CRPS. Low-impact exercises, stretching, and other exercises can help improve range of motion, strengthen muscles, and prevent contracture. Physical therapy can also help to retrain the nervous system and increase pain tolerance.
CRPS can lead to excessive stress, anxiety, and depression, which may, in turn, aggravate CRPS pain. Psychological counseling can help patients cope with the emotional distress of living with chronic pain.
Electrical stimulation therapies, such as transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) and spinal cord stimulation (SCS), can help reduce CRPS pain by stimulating the nervous system. Electrical stimulation therapy is often used alongside other forms of treatment such as medication.
Desensitization is a type of therapy that can help patients increase pain tolerance by gradually exposing the affected limb to unpleasant stimuli. These may include heat, cold, or vibration. The goal is to help patients become less sensitive to stimuli that would typically cause or aggravate CRPS pain.
Ketamine infusion therapy is a newer treatment that has shown great promise in providing long-lasting remission from severe and treatment-resistant chronic pain, including CRPS-related pain. Intravenous ketamine works by blocking pain signals in the brain and helping reverse central sensitization.
Making lifestyle changes can also help reduce pain and improve quality of life. This may include quitting smoking, eating a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, and effectively managing stress.
Some people may find alternative remedies like acupuncture, massage therapy, biofeedback, water therapy, and meditation helpful in managing CRPS pain. Other common alternative treatments include meditation, tai-chi, and chiropractic care.
The Bottom Line
CRPS is a chronic condition that can significantly impact your physical and mental health. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, there are several effective treatments that can help reduce pain and improve your overall quality of life. If you or someone close to you is experiencing CRPS symptoms, don’t hesitate to seek professional help.