Updated: Nov 1, 2021
Angela* was recovering from injuries sustained in a car crash. She initially thought the crash was relatively minor. Her leg hurt, but everyone walked away, so she counted her blessings. Not long after the accident, though, Angela began feeling chronic, burning pain in her leg. This pain was much more intense than it had been. Sometimes, the pain was accompanied by swelling or muscle spasms, and her leg was suddenly very sensitive to touch.
Angela tried home remedies, including over-the-counter pain medication and stretching. She even tried a yoga video she saw on TV that was supposed to help with chronic pain. Nothing worked. Fed up with a decreasing quality of life due to this mysterious, worsening pain, Angela called the doctor and, after some tests, was diagnosed with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS).
For Angela, as with countless other people struggling to find relief from the symptoms of Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS), the journey toward a life largely free from pain could have been a long, winding, and frustrating road. In far too many cases, patients delay treatment, hoping the pain will be temporary, when, unfortunately, it only increases over time. With CRPS, sometimes called Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy, as with many other progressive, debilitating diseases, early diagnosis and treatment can make a big difference in patient outcomes.
Understanding the Symptoms of CRPS
While Complex Regional Pain Syndrome may be caused by an injury, surgery, or traumatic medical event, such as a stroke or a heart attack, the most common denominator is nerve damage, which can lead to a variety of symptoms. One of the most telling is chronic burning or throbbing pain in part of the body that has been previously injured, especially if that pain is not consistent with the severity of the injury causing the pain.
The pain and other symptoms related to CRPS are distinct, severe, and often chronic, but there is still some mystery surrounding the condition. While CRPS is associated with nerve damage, in about 9 out of 10 cases, symptoms occur after an injury or trauma that did not directly damage the nerves in the limb where the symptoms are being felt. While CRPS most often begins in an arm or a leg, that’s not always the case. And, in some cases, the pain can spread across the body, even to the opposite limb, so people who injured their right arm or leg, might feel symptoms on their left side, or vice versa. Patients with CRPS describe the symptoms as a tight, burning sensation that is often accompanied by increased sensitivity and a “pins and needles” feeling.
Other symptoms may include swelling, abrupt changes in skin color or temperature, joint stiffness or swelling, muscle spasms or weakness, even changes in hair or nail growth. These symptoms may come and go, and they can shift over time. The reasons for the varied type and duration of symptoms has to do with damage done to the nerves controlling blood flow and body temperature.
If left untreated, symptoms related to Complex Regional Pain Syndrome tend to worsen over time, and they can become debilitating. CRPS can lead to contracture (muscle tightening) or atrophy (muscle weakening or deterioration). Because of these long-term effects, it is advisable for people experiencing any symptoms of CRPS to seek medical treatment as soon as possible.
Diagnosing and Treating CRPS
Because of the range of symptoms, diagnosing Complex Regional Pain Syndrome requires ruling out other conditions first. These conditions require treatments that likely won’t help a patient suffering with CRPS. While there is no specific test for Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, by ruling out conditions with similar symptoms and understanding a patient’s medical history, a physician can make an informed diagnosis, so the patient can begin effective treatment.
In some cases, especially early on, CRPS can be treated with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and physical therapy. If these initial treatments are ineffective, or if symptoms are too intense, the doctor may recommend steroid injections, nerve blocks, or Spinal Cord Stimulation (SCS).
Patients like Angela have experienced effective results through SCS, which is a non-destructive long-term solution for CRPS as well as other types of neuropathic pain. Most patients treated with spinal cord stimulation report significant pain relief and a much better quality of life.
If you are suffering with symptoms of Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, do not delay treatment. Click here to schedule an appointment with Dr. Skaliy today. He will discuss your specific situation, answer any questions you may have, and walk you through possible treatment options.
*NOTE: “Angela’s” story is an example that represents many different patients suffering with CRPS who have found relief through treatments, including spinal cord stimulation.