The skin on your arm – years after surgery – still hurts to the touch. And what’s even worse is your other arm hurts, too, but has never been injured. Your doctor said it could be a case of complex regional pain syndrome. Recently, you’ve noticed memory lapses. Are they connected?
What is CRPS?
“Complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS) is a broad term describing excessive and prolonged pain and inflammation that follows an injury to an arm or leg. CRPS has acute (recent, short-term) and chronic (lasting greater than six months) forms. CRPS used to be known as reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD) and causalgia. People with CRPS have changing combinations of spontaneous pain or excess pain that is much greater than normal following something as mild as a touch.”
Who Does It Affect?
According to the National Organization for Rare Disorders, CRPS happens three to four times more often in females than males. Although CRPS can occur at any age, it’s uncommon in children and young people. Within the pediatric sphere, the start of CRPS happens typically in early adolescence (the lowest end of the scale somewhere between seven to nine years). In adults, the age when it starts is highly varying, between 37 and 70 years old.
What Are The Causes?
- Bone fractures resulting in nerve injury
- A surgical incision, sutures, positioning, or post-op scarring can lead to nerve injury and trigger CRPS.
- Connective tissues ruptures may allow excess joint movement that stretches nearby nerves.
- Minor injuries, like burns or cuts, or visible injuries that may have damaged underlying nerves
- Limb immobilized due to casting, as weight presses on nerves and inhibits blood flow to your hands and feet.
- Cuts or needle sticks to the skin
If CRPS isn’t diagnosed and treated early, the disease may worsen to include more dangerous symptoms like:
- Atrophy, where your skin, bones, and muscles could start to deteriorate and weaken if you stop or have problems moving a limb because of discomfort or stiffness.
- Contracture, or the tightening of your muscles. These muscle spasms can result in a painful condition where your fingers and hand or your toes and foot are contorted into a fixed position.
Does CRPS Cause Memory Problems?
The severity and duration of complex regional pain syndrome symptoms vary from one person to another. Memory problems are just one of many side effects of the condition, but the pain is usually the chief and most incapacitating symptom.
If you have CRPS, you should be on the lookout for symptoms like these:
- You have continuous pain that worsens over time.
- The pain is disproportionate to the seriousness of your injury.
- You have high pain sensitivity, meaning that even a very soft touch to your skin triggers severe pain.
- Pain that expands. You may have injured your finger or toe, but the pain spreads to your whole arm or leg. And the pain could even travel to the opposite limb.
- You experience a “burning” sensation or feel like the impacted limb is squeezed.
- There’s skin swelling. Swelling in the impacted limb could come, go, or stay constant.
- You notice a reduced ability to move the affected limb or more stiffness. It’s also hard to add pressure to the impacted limb or joint.
- You notice fluctuations in skin temperature, where it may feel warmer on the affected limb or colder than the opposite one.
- There are perceptible changes in skin color.
- You notice apparent differences in how your skin feels, with it becoming glossy and thin or overly sweaty.
- The hair or nails on the affected limb may grow quickly or not at all.
Symptoms usually start within four to six weeks following injury, fracture, or surgery.
Diagnosis & Treatment
There is no particular test to diagnose complex regional pain syndrome. CRPS is diagnosed mainly through reviewing your medical history, physical examinations, and digging deeper into your symptoms. Your healthcare provider will want to know if you’ve suffered a recent injury like a sprain, fracture, or surgical procedure. You may also undergo electromyography to test for other causes of neuropathy. CRPS may also have a psychological component, necessitating a psychiatric assessment of your mental well-being and possible triggers for your symptoms.
Your doctor may recommend rehabilitation and physical therapy, psychotherapy, or particular medicine like ketamine based on the diagnosis.
If you experience complex regional pain syndrome symptoms, don’t wait until the discomfort becomes so severe that it controls your life. Memory loss is only one possible condition indicator, but it can be treated. Ask your doctor for more information and whether ketamine may work for you.