Introduction 

Complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS) is a poorly understood condition in which a person experiences persistent severe and debilitating pain.

Although most cases of CRPS are triggered by an injury, the resulting pain is much more severe and long-lasting than normal.

The pain is usually confined to one limb, but it can sometimes spread to other parts of the body.

The skin of the affected body part can become so sensitive that just a slight touch, bump or even a change in temperature can provoke intense pain.

Affected areas can also become swollen, stiff or undergo fluctuating changes in colour or temperature.

Many cases of CRPS gradually improve to some degree over time, or get completely better. However, some cases of CRPS never go away, and the affected person will experience pain for many years.

Read more about the symptoms of CRPS.

When to seek medical advice

You should see your GP if you have persistent pain that is preventing you from carrying out everyday activities.

CRPS can be difficult to diagnose because it involves a number of tests to rule out other possible causes. It's therefore best to seek help as soon as possible, because treatment may reduce unnecessary suffering, if started early.

Read more about diagnosing CRPS.

What causes CRPS?

The cause of CRPS is unknown, but it's generally thought to be the result of the body reacting abnormally to an injury.

It used to be thought that CRPS was a psychosomatic condition (the symptoms were "all in the mind"), but research has since disproved this.

Read more about the possible causes of CRPS.

Who is affected

It's difficult to estimate exactly how common CRPS is, as many cases may go undiagnosed or misdiagnosed. A study claimed that up to 1 in 3,800 people in the UK develop CRPS each year.

CRPS can begin at any age, including in children, although the average age for symptoms to start is around 50. Women make up around 3 out of every 4 cases.

How CRPS is treated

Treatment for CRPS involves 4 main aspects:

  • education and self-management – being given clear information about your condition and advice on any steps you can take to help manage your condition yourself
  • physical rehabilitation  treatment to help manage your symptoms and reduce the risk of long-term physical problems, such as physiotherapy exercises
  • pain relief  treatments to help reduce your pain, such as anticonvulsants or antidepressants
  • psychological support  interventions to help you cope with the emotional impact of living with CRPS, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)

Due to the complex nature of CRPS, a number of different professionals will usually be involved in your care.

Read more about treating CRPS.

The pain associated with CRPS is usually confined to one limb 

Page last reviewed: 09/05/2014

Next review due: 09/05/2016