Get the Facts About Complex Regional Pain Syndrome

Learn how doctors are successfully treating patients who suffer from this still-mysterious chronic pain

Chronic pain can be one of the most frustrating and life-disrupting medical conditions to experience. It’s physically and emotionally debilitating when you’re hurting almost all the time. You don’t know why and you can’t seem to find any solutions.


People suffering from chronic pain often withdraw from friends — they’re less active, less social and less apt to enjoy life’s simple pleasures. Fortunately, for many adults dealing with chronic pain, there is hope. Chronic pain can be treated, without addictive medications, and these people can get their life back.

It can be tough to hope, though, when facing mysterious symptoms and an uncertain diagnosis. Such is often the case with a chronic pain condition called Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS). Also known as “reflex sympathetic dystrophy,” this condition is defined as a chronic pain condition in which affective nerves send pain messages to the brain.

Doctors and medical researchers have not yet discovered a root cause for CRPS, though we have good reasons to believe there are multiple sources of the condition. It’s possible that CRPS is really a symptom of a deeper medical issue. While there are some things we don’t know, here’s what we do know:

  • Experts believe that there is a dysfunction within the central or peripheral nervous system which causes this pain

  • Patients tend to experience CRPS as a group of related symptoms rather than a specific cause

  • While children and teens are susceptible, this condition mostly affects adults

Symptoms of Complex Regional Pain Syndrome

Symptoms can vary in severity and duration. While some patients will develop mild symptoms, and suffer from these indefinitely, others will develop extreme symptoms that worsen over time. Symptoms of CRPS include:

  • Burning pain

  • Swelling and stiffness in the joints

  • Decreased mobility

  • Changes in nail and hair growth

  • Changes in skin temperature, color and texture

Not all of these symptoms have to be present to diagnose CRPS, though patients do commonly experience a combination of symptoms, especially if the pain is centered on a part of the body that has suffered an injury.

Uncovering the mystery of Complex Regional Pain Syndrome

Scientists and medical researchers are currently exploring multiple different causes that produce symptoms associated with CRPS. While there is no consensus on a single root cause, CRPS may be caused by pain receptors in the affected part of the body becoming responsive to catecholamines, which are messengers within the nervous system, or it could be the result of the triggering of an immune response leading to inflammatory symptoms.

These uncertainties can be difficult for people suffering from Complex Regional Pain Syndrome. They just want the pain to stop! Fortunately, doctors have found treatments that can deliver results and make a huge positive difference in the lives of people suffering from CRPS.

Diagnosing CRPS

While there is currently no test for Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, doctors can use diagnostic metrics to uncover the probability that a patient is suffering from CRPS. Earlier stages of the condition can be more difficult to diagnose, especially when symptoms are relatively mild, however, through observation, physicians can make a positive diagnosis.

Treating Complex Regional Pain Syndrome

At present, there is no “cure” for Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, so the primary goal of treatment is to reduce pain from the associated symptoms and improve the patient’s quality of life. Early stage treatments for CRPS include physical therapy, drug treatment, psychotherapy, pain medications, corticosteroids, antidepressants, antiseizure medications and diagnostic blocks.

In the past, doctors would sometimes perform surgical sympathectomy, a procedure that destroys nerves in the sympathetic nervous system. This procedure involves a major incision and lengthy recovery time. While this procedure was practiced over several decades, many experts now believe this somewhat controversial technique can actually make CRPS worse, because the technique destroys nerves associated with CRPS.


Today, one of the best treatment options for CRPS is spinal cord stimulation. In this minimally-invasive surgical procedure, a licensed physician delivers electrical stimulation to the spinal cord. This stimulating treatment provides sympathectomy to the affected area. One of the biggest benefits of this procedure is that it is non-destructive, allowing the patient to take it for a “test drive” and see if it works for them. Yes, you read that right: a test drive.


SCS: Test drive individually optimized pain relief


Step one is for the physician to place wires into the epidural space. This is accomplished with a simple needle stick, which only takes a few minutes. The needles are removed, and the wires are taped down to the skin. These wires are attached to a battery the patient wears for about a week. After that time, a pain assessment is made. If the treatment helps reduce pain from CRPS, a more permanent version of the same procedure is completed. Though this procedure does involve local anesthesia and sedation, it is a much less invasive procedure than surgical sympathectomy, and comes with much less associated pain and recovery time.


While spinal cord stimulation may not be called a “cure,” many patients who receive spinal cord stimulation show dramatic improvements in their condition. Better still, the spinal cord stimulator can be programmed in our office to maximize pain relief.

Today could be the first step on your road to relief from chronic pain. Dr. Michael Skaliy and the team at Atlanta Spine Specialists invite you to schedule your consultation today.

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