The main symptom of complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS) is pain, which can sometimes be severe, continuous and debilitating. It's 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 would normally be expected.

The pain may be a mix of burning, stabbing or stinging sensations, 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 pain gets worse. Stress in particular can lead to flare-ups, which is why relaxation techniques and mindfulness training can be an important part of treating CRPS.

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

You may hear this described in the following medical terms:

  • hyperalgesia  feeling pain from pressure or temperature that wouldn't normally be painful
  • allodynia  experiencing pain from a very light stroke of the affected skin

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 doesn't 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 in the affected limb may be hot, red and dry, whereas other times it may be cold, blue and sweaty
  • hair and nail changes  your hair and nails in the affected limb may grow unusually slowly or quickly and your nails may become brittle or grooved
  • joint stiffness and swelling in the affected limb (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's no evidence this could lead to fractures

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). 

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

Psychology in CRPS

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've been experiencing feelings of depression or suicide. They'll be able to provide help and support.

Alternatively, you can call the Samaritans on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org. They're available 24 hours a day to talk through any issues you may be experiencing, and will do so in total confidence.

When to see your GP

You should see your GP if you have persistent pain that's 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 help can reduce unnecessary suffering.

Read more about diagnosing CRPS.

Page last reviewed: 16/05/2016

Next review due: 16/05/2018