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Why Diagnosing CRPS is Notoriously Difficult

Complex regional pain syndrome is poorly understood and, as a result, is extremely difficult to diagnose. In this blog, we reveal more and discuss the reasons why.


Complex regional pain syndrome, also referred to as reflex sympathetic dystrophy, is a chronic pain. Much like fibromyalgia, it is notoriously difficult to diagnose CRPS, particularly in the early stages.

Most cases of CRPS are triggered by an injury. The injury may be severe – such as a head trauma, broken bone or damaged nerve – or minor, such as a cut finger. Either way, the resulting pain is much more severe and long-lasting than normal and continues after the original injury has healed.

The pain, often described as burning, sharp, stabbing or stinging, is usually confined to one limb, but can spread to other parts of the body. Symptoms usually occur within a month of obtaining an injury, varying in severity and how long they last. Unfortunately, the pain caused by the condition is constant and can become worse rather than better with time, having a considerable impact on day-to-day life.

Early treatment of CRPS can reduce suffering. However, diagnosis may be difficult, especially in the early stages. There is no single test for complex regional pain syndrome. Instead, it is usually confirmed by ruling out other conditions that have similar symptoms.

Some of the tests that may be conducted to rule out other conditions include:

  • Blood tests – to rule out an underlying infection or rheumatoid arthritis
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scan – to rule out underlying problems with tissue or bones
  • X-ray – to rule out joint and bone problems
  • Nerve conduction studies – to rule out nerve damage

A physical examination may also be carried out by a GP or medical specialist to check for physical signs of CRPS. These include:

  • Swelling and changes to skin temperature
  • Skin sensitivity – even to very light touch
  • Skin changes – such as colour, rashes and infections; dry, shiny or scaly patches
  • Limited movement due to pain and stiff joints
  • Muscle problems – such as weakness, sudden and severe spasms, tremors, severe jerking and other abnormal movements
  • Hair changes – hair may become coarse but then become thin
  • Abnormal sweating
  • Fingernail or toenail changes – they may become brittle, growing faster in the beginning and then noticeably slower
  • Psychological problems – such as difficulty relaxing, lack of confidence, feeling unable to cope, and depression, which is very common

It is very important to diagnose CRPS as early as possible; according to a study by Shah and Kirchner (2011) early diagnosis and treatment is required to prevent a long-standing or permanent disability. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms highlighted in this blog, we would advise that you seek medical guidance from your GP. If you have been diagnosed and believe you have developed the condition as a result of an accident or injury that was not your fault, get in touch with us today to discuss how we can help you claim the compensation you deserve. Call us on 0161 737 9248 or click here to fill in our online contact form.

We do not endorse any research, studies or sources mentioned within our blogs and comments. Furthermore, we do not endorse any medical advice provided, and would strongly recommend anyone seeking medical advice to contact their local healthcare provider.

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