What is RSD?
Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, CRPS, formerly known as RSD Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy, is a progressive disease of the Autonomic Nervous System, and more specifically, the Sympathetic Nervous System. The pain is characterized as constant, extremely intense, and out of proportion to the original injury. The pain is typically accompanied by swelling, skin changes, extreme sensitivity, and can often be debilitating. It usually affects one or more of the four limbs but can occur in any part of the body and in over 70% of the victims it spreads to additional areas.
CRPS is ranked as the most painful form of chronic pain that exists today by the McGill Pain Index.
What are the Causes?
Complex regional pain syndrome occurs in two types, with similar signs and symptoms, but different causes:
- Type 1. This type occurs after an illness or injury that didn’t directly damage the nerves in your affected limb. It is also known as reflex sympathetic dystrophy syndrome. About 90 percent of people with complex regional pain syndrome have type 1.
- Type 2. This type follows a distinct nerve injury, and was once referred to as causalgia.
Many cases of complex regional pain syndrome occur after a forceful trauma to an arm or a leg, such as a crush injury, fracture or amputation. Other major and minor traumas — such as surgery, heart attacks, infections and even sprained ankles — also can lead to complex regional pain syndrome. Emotional stress may be a precipitating factor, as well.
It’s not well understood why these injuries can trigger complex regional pain syndrome, but it may be due to a dysfunctional interaction between your central and peripheral nervous systems and inappropriate inflammatory responses.
What are the Symptoms?
There are Four Main Symptoms/Criteria of CRPS:
- Constant chronic burning pain – The pain is usually significantly greater than the original event/injury. Although the affected area may feel cold to the touch, to the patient it feels as though it is literally on fire. The McGill Pain Index ranks it as the most painful form of chronic pain today. This symptom also includes allodynia, which is an extreme sensitivity to touch, sound, temperature, and vibration.
- Inflammation – This can affect the appearance of the skin, bruising, mottling, tiny red spots, and shiny, purplish look. In addition, it can affect the skin temperature of the affected area, cause excessive sweating, etc.
- Spasms – In blood vessels (vasoconstriction) and muscles (sometimes referred to as rolling spasms) of the extremities.
- Insomnia/Emotional Disturbance – includes the major changes to the limbic system such as short-term memory problems, concentration difficulties, sleep disturbances, confusion, etc.
There are a great many additional symptoms that can also occur over the course of the disease. Not every patient will have all of the symptoms and the symptoms may change over time due to the stage the patient is in, the medications the patient is on, the treatments the patient is receiving, and even such things as time of day/month/season, and whether or not she/he is currently under excess stress.
What are the Treatments?
Improvement and even remission of complex regional pain syndrome is possible if treatment begins within a few months of your first symptoms. Often, a combination of various therapies is necessary. Your doctor will tailor your treatment based on your specific case. Treatment options include:
Doctors use various medications to treat the symptoms of complex regional pain syndrome, and may include:
- Pain relievers. Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers — such as aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) and naproxen (Aleve) — may ease pain and inflammation. Your doctor may prescribe stronger pain relievers if OTC ones aren’t helpful. Opioid medications may be an option. Taken in appropriate doses, they may provide acceptable control of pain.
- Antidepressants and anticonvulsants. Sometimes antidepressants, such as amitriptyline, and anticonvulsants, such as gabapentin (Gralise, Neurontin), are used to treat pain that originates from a damaged nerve (neuropathic pain).
- Corticosteroids. Steroid medications, such as prednisone, may reduce inflammation and improve mobility in the affected limb.
- Bone-loss medications. Your doctor may suggest medications to prevent or stall bone loss, such as alendronate (Fosamax) and calcitonin (Miacalcin).
- Sympathetic nerve-blocking medication. Injection of an anesthetic to block pain fibers in your affected nerves may relieve pain in some people.
- Intravenous ketamine. Studies show that low doses of intravenous ketamine, a strong anesthetic, may substantially alleviate pain. However, despite pain relief, there was no improvement in function.
Therapies for CRPS include:
- Applying heat and cold. Applying cold may relieve swelling and sweating. If the affected area is cool, applying heat may offer relief.
- Topical analgesics. Various topical treatments are available that may reduce hypersensitivity, such as capsaicin cream (Capsin, Capsagel, Zostrix) or lidocaine patches (Lidoderm, others).
- Physical therapy. Gentle, guided exercising of the affected limbs may help decrease pain and improve range of motion and strength. The earlier the disease is diagnosed, the more effective exercises may be.
- Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS). Chronic pain is sometimes eased by applying electrical impulses to nerve endings.
- Biofeedback. In some cases, learning biofeedback techniques may help. In biofeedback, you learn to become more aware of your body so that you can relax your body and relieve pain.
- Spinal cord stimulation. Your doctor inserts tiny electrodes along your spinal cord. A small electrical current delivered to the spinal cord results in pain relief.
- Recurrences. Recurrences of complex regional pain syndrome do occur, sometimes due to a trigger such as exposure to cold or an intense emotional stressor. Recurrences may be treated with small doses of antidepressant or other medication.