Complex regional pain syndrome

Last updated: January 13, 2022

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Complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS) is characterized by pain, typically in a limb, that is more prolonged and/or severe than would be expected given the initial injury. The pain may be accompanied by sensory abnormalities (e.g., hyperesthesia, allodynia), signs of vegetative dysfunction (e.g., changes in the temperature and color of the skin), and/or loss of motor function. The pathogenesis of CRPS is unclear. On physical examination, patients present with pain and multiple accompanying signs of vegetative and motor dysfunction on the affected side. Although osseous changes may occur in CRPS, diagnosis is based on clinical findings rather than imaging. Multimodal treatment initiated in the early stages of the condition can result in remission and consists of physical and medical therapy (e.g., NSAIDs, anticonvulsants, low-dose tricyclic antidepressants).

  • Sex: >
  • Peak incidence: 40–50 years
  • The upper limbs are affected more often than the lower limbs.


Epidemiological data refers to the US, unless otherwise specified.

The pathogenesis of CRPS is unknown. However, it can often be linked to an inciting event:


Symptoms of CRPS may progress through several stages: “acute/traumatic” within weeks of injury (redness, swelling, burning) → “dystrophic” within months of injury (cold skin, increase in pain) → “atrophic” for years after injury (skin and muscle atrophy, constant pain).

  • CRPS is a clinical diagnosis
    • All four of the following criteria must be met:
      1. Persistent pain disproportionate to the original injury
      2. At least one symptom in three of the following four categories, as reported by the patient: sensory, vasomotor, sudomotor/edema, motor/trophic
      3. At least one sign in two of the following four categories, as assessed by the physician during examination: sensory, vasomotor, sudomotor/edema, motor/trophic
      4. Exclusion of other possible etiologies (e.g., infection, radiculopathy, neuropathy, vascular disorder)
  • Additional diagnostics
    • Indication: confirmation of the diagnosis in unclear cases
      • X-ray (low sensitivity)
        • Generalized, patchy demineralization in the periarticular region, which increases over time
        • Subperiosteal bone resorption with preservation of joint space
      • Triple-phase bone scintigraphy (high sensitivity and specificity only during first year of the condition): evaluation of increased radiotracer uptake during the mineralization (i.e., third) phase on the affected side compared with the contralateral side


  • Patient education: Explain that the condition, although painful, is not a result of ongoing tissue damage in the region.
  • Psychological interventions: identification and treatment of psychological factors that contribute to pain; treatment of comorbid anxiety or depression; relaxation techniques
  • Physical and occupational therapy: : first-line therapy
    • Ensuring daily function and motion of the affected limb
    • Desensitization techniques
    • Lymph drainage for the treatment of edema
    • Hot/cold contrast therapy
  • Medical therapy
  • Interventional procedures
    • Indicated in patients who do not improve with noninvasive therapy
    • Trigger point injections, regional sympathetic nerve block, spinal cord stimulation (a neuromodulation technique to relieve chronic neuropathic pain by using a mild electric current that is administered percutaneously or through electrodes implanted in the epidural space)



  1. Abdi S. Complex Regional Pain Syndrome in Adults: Pathogenesis, Clinical Manifestations, and Diagnosis. In: Post TW, ed. UpToDate. Waltham, MA: UpToDate. updated: June 6, 2018. Accessed: December 2, 2018.
  2. Abdi S. Complex Regional Pain Syndrome in Adults: Prevention and Management. In: Post TW, ed. UpToDate. Waltham, MA: UpToDate. updated: September 4, 2018. Accessed: December 2, 2018.
  3. Gupta G. Complex Regional Pain Syndromes. In: Berman SA, Complex Regional Pain Syndromes. New York, NY: WebMD. Updated: June 20, 2018. Accessed: December 2, 2018.
  4. Le T, Bhushan V, Chen V, King M. First Aid for the USMLE Step 2 CK. McGraw-Hill Education ; 2015

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