Symptoms of complex regional pain syndrome 

The main symptom of complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS) is severe, continuous and debilitating pain. It is usually confined to one limb, but can spread to other parts of the body in some cases.

Chronic pain

The pain associated with CRPS is usually triggered by an injury, but is a lot more severe and long-lasting than you would normally expect.

The pain is usually burning, stabbing or stinging, but there may also be a tingling sensation and numbness.

You may have periods of pain lasting a few days or weeks, called flare-ups, where the discomfort gets worse. Stress in particular can lead to flare-ups, which is why relaxation techniques are an important part of treating CRPS.

If you have CRPS, your skin in the affected area can become very sensitive, and even the slightest touch, bump or change in temperature can provoke intense pain.

You may hear this described in the following medical terms:

  • hyperalgesia  extreme sensitivity to pain
  • allodynia  experiencing pain from something that should not be painful at all, such as a very light touch

Other symptoms

In addition to chronic pain, CRPS can also cause a range of other symptoms, including:

  • strange sensations in the affected limb  it may feel as if the affected limb does not belong to the rest of your body, or it may feel bigger or smaller than the opposite, unaffected limb
  • alternating changes to your skin – sometimes your skin may be hot, red and dry, whereas other times it may be cold, blue and sweaty
  • hair and nail changes  your hair and nails may grow unusually slowly or quickly, and your nails may become brittle or grooved
  • joint stiffness and swelling (oedema)
  • tremors and muscle spasms (dystonia)
  • difficulty moving the affected body part
  • difficulty sleeping (insomnia)
  • small patches of fragile bones (osteoporosis) in the affected limb – although there is no evidence this could lead to fractures

Some of these problems can make it very difficult for people with CRPS to move around or travel easily.

Further problems

The emotional strain of living with chronic pain can sometimes lead to psychological problems, such as depression and anxiety. During periods of extreme pain, some people may even consider suicide.

See your GP as soon as possible if you have been experiencing feelings of depression or suicide. They will be able to provide help and support. Alternatively, you can call the Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90. They are available 24 hours a day to talk through any issues that you may be experiencing, and will do so in total confidence.

In very rare cases, CRPS can also lead to further physical complications, such as skin infections and ulcers (open sores), muscle atrophy (where the muscles begin to waste away) and muscle contractures (where the muscles shorten and lose their normal range of movement).

When to see your GP

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, and it's best to seek help as soon as possible, because early can help reduce any unnecessary suffering.

Read more about diagnosing CRPS.

Page last reviewed: 09/05/2014

Next review due: 09/05/2016