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November is CRPS Awareness Month, established to bring attention to a rare but incredibly painful chronic condition occurring in almost 200,000 Americans every year.

Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS) is an autoimmune disease of the nervous system, usually resulting from traumatic injury to an arm or leg. Sufferers must endure near-constant crippling pain in the affected limb, sometimes so severe that even a light touch is agonizing. 

Serious car accidents can result in limb trauma leading to CRPS. While most car accident injuries heal eventually, there is no cure for CRPS. It lowers the quality of life for patients and those who care for them and can lead to mental health and relationship struggles. 

Unlike many other personal injury cases, plaintiffs who develop CRPS from their injury have a high burden of proof. Symptoms of this little-understood condition can occur long after the statute of limitations has passed, and misdiagnosis is common. 

Hiring an experienced CRPS attorney can secure you the compensation you deserve after an accident changes your life forever.  

An Overview of CRPS

Ninety percent of CRPS cases develop after a bone fracture sustained in a traumatic injury. Splintered or displaced bone and/or tightness from the cast can damage the nerves. Other common causes of potential nerve damage are sprains, surgical incisions/scarring, and cuts or burns.

The pain of CRPS, commonly called the “suicide disease,” ranks higher than amputation and childbirth on the McGill Pain Index. One heartbreaking 2017 study found that patients with CRPS are 75% more likely to develop a second case after additional injury.

There are two types of CRPS. 90% of CRPS patients have Type 1, also known as reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD). It occurs after an illness or injury that did not directly damage the nerves in the affected limb. Type 2 has similar symptoms but stems from direct nerve damage.

Type 1 CRPS damages the thinnest sensory and autonomic nerve fibers, which are responsible for overall cell health and transmitting pain, temperature, and itching sensations. 

Certain pre-existing factors, such as poor nerve health, smoking, and genetics, can increase your risk of developing CRPS. Women are much more susceptible than men. 

CRPS patients’ immune systems mistake healthy cells for foreign ones that must be attacked, causing inflammation. Because unhealthy foods trigger inflammation, a diet free of processed meats, white carbohydrates, high sugar, and gluten is essential to CRPS pain management. Smoking, heavy drinking, and too much caffeine can also exacerbate pain.

CRPS Symptoms

CRPS symptoms typically occur within four to six weeks after injury, and how severe or long-lasting they are can vary by patient.

The first and most obvious symptom is constant or intermittent burning or stinging pain, often deep inside the injured arm or leg. Occasionally, this pain will spread to other body parts.  

Other signs and symptoms include:

  • Numbness and/or extreme sensitivity to pain, pressure, and touch
  • Constant/intermittent skin swelling
  • Decreased limb mobility 
  • Hotter/colder skin temperature compared to the opposite limb
  • Blotchy, discolored, shiny/thin, or unusually sweaty skin
  • Hair/nail growth that increases or stops altogether

Many cases improve over time and go into remission, but others persist for months or years. Starting treatment early is crucial. Some studies have found that taking Vitamin C before surgery helps prevent CRPS.

Long-Term Complications of CRPS 

Untreated CRPS will become more debilitating and eventually permanent. Muscle and bone may atrophy (waste away) and/or tighten, forcing the hand/fingers or foot/toes into a fixed position. If the limb becomes cold or pale, the condition is likely irreversible. Even milder cases can recur up to 30% of the time.

The mental and emotional pain of CRPS can be just as devastating as the physical. Constant pain robs patients of their independence and affects daily tasks, working, sleeping, eating, and relationships. Loneliness, stress, and anxiety often take over. Well-meaning friends, family, and strangers can’t empathize with invisible pain and struggle to understand how dramatically life has changed for the patient.    

Parents, partners, or other live-in companions are suddenly forced into a caregiver role they aren’t prepared for, and this can destroy intimate relationships without the right help and support. CRPS patients often dive into isolation to avoid conflict with their loved ones, which can be incredibly dangerous to mental health. 

A 2020 study from Canada’s McMaster University explored how allodynia, the main characteristic of CRPS in which touch is painful, changed how 44 participants viewed their social roles and intimacy

Lack of control over their symptoms changed how they responded to intimate behaviors, frustrating their partners and forcing them to adapt to new levels of functioning and sensation. While these efforts improved their relationships in some ways, fear of painful interactions often led to physical and emotional distancing. 

“If your husband can’t hug you, it is pretty hard to have intimacy,” said one participant. 

Fortunately, many CRPS organizations offer online or in-person support groups where sufferers can lean on others who understand their pain. Another great option is a therapy dog, who can assist with everyday tasks, increase endorphins, and lower stress, as well as give owners something positive to live for outside their condition. 

CRPS Diagnosis and Treatment

Because there is no test for CRPS, many physicians use a diagnostic method called the Budapest Criteria. This method separates signs (observed by the physician during the exam) and symptoms (expressed to the physician by the patient) using four categories.  

Physicians must observe at least one symptom in at least three categories and one sign in at least two categories to confirm a CRPS diagnosis.

  • Sensory: extreme sensitivity or pain from a light touch
  • Vasomotor: abnormal skin color/temperature
  • Motor/trophic: muscle spasms and weakness or changes to hair/skin on the affected limb
  • Sudomotor/oedema: rapidly changing and/or excessive swelling and sweating

Other potentially helpful procedures include bone scans, x-rays, and an MRI or ultrasound to find nerve damage. 

CRPS treatment aims to decrease pain, restore function and maintain quality of life. A combination of treatment options catered to the patient is best. Possibilities include:

  • Physical/occupational and behavioral/psychosocial therapy
  • Healthy lifestyle changes and appropriate exercise
  • Prescription and OTC drugs such as painkillers, antidepressants, steroids, nerve blockers, antihypertensives
  • Alternative/holistic pain management (e.g., acupuncture)
  • Heat therapy
  • Spinal cord stimulation
  • Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS)

Researchers around the world are working on some promising new treatment options. Neridronate, a drug given by infusion for rheumatic conditions like osteoporosis, has successfully treated CRPS in Italy for years. 

A well-constructed custom treatment plan can help CRPS patients manage their pain and live relatively normal lives. 

Do I Need a CRPS Lawyer?

CRPS is a devastating, easily-misdiagnosed condition with many potential causes. It lacks a universal treatment option and often requires much trial and error to find an individual effective regimen. Unlike a typical car accident injury, victims who develop CRPS will likely face months, years, or decades of therapy, hospital visits and medical bills, and poor quality of life. 

If you have been diagnosed with CRPS after an accident injury caused by someone else’s negligence, it can be difficult to link it to the accident, especially if the onset of your symptoms is delayed. A personal injury law firm with insider knowledge of CRPS can help you determine the best legal approach. Managing partner Bryan Pope at the Cochran Firm Texas is a nationally recognized expert in CRPS/RSD cases caused by an accident. He and his team will work tirelessly to ensure you recover the damages you deserve. Chronic pain doesn’t have to ruin your life. Fill out our contact form or talk with us via 24/7 chat or phone (1-800-843-3476) to discuss your legal options. 

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