There’s nothing more frustrating than being told that your pain is all in your head, especially when it is having such a negative impact on your life. This is how people suffering with “complex regional pain syndrome-I” (CRPS-I) often feel. Now, thanks to a recent study, this disease has been proven to be more than just a figment of a patient’s imagination.
So, what is this mystery condition? CRPS-I is a chronic pain syndrome that usually centers on a specific limb — an arm, a leg, etc. It occurs after some kind of trauma to the area occurs — sometimes just a minor cut — and continues even after the original injury has healed, with no apparent cause.
CRPS-I involves constant, intense pain that increasingly gets worse rather than getting better. It’s also important to note that the intensity of the pain doesn’t correspond to the severity of the original injury. A body part affected by CRPS-I will often become hot and red, with painful swelling. And, of course, there’s the burning pain that sufferers have to deal with.
The earliest recorded case of CRPS-I goes back to the 17th Century. A surgeon, Ambroise Paré, treated King Charles IX for smallpox. The doctor performed a procedure that was commonplace at the time — he “bled” the king with a sharp object called a lancet. Even though this was a small “injury,” King Charles began to experience classic CRPS-I symptoms: chronic pain, muscle contracture, and an inability to move his arm properly.
You might be surprised to note that we still don’t have a cure for this debilitating condition. All a doctor can do is treat the symptoms, usually with painkillers. Unfortunately for victims of CRPS-I, drugs and other treatments are sometimes ineffective.
The worst part about this syndrome is the mystery surrounding it. The medical community has been stumped on the cause of CRPS-I for a long time. Could it be caused by the sympathetic nervous system? Could an immune system response be prompting these symptoms?
In fact, many have held the belief that this is not a real condition at all, but that it is simply in the minds of the CRPS-I sufferers. However, being told that the excruciating pain you’re in is “psychosomatic,” or something that is brought on by an overactive imagination, is beyond infuriating for many.
However, there is hope on the horizon. In a recent study out of Boston, researchers sought to pinpoint a physical cause for CRPS-I. They tested and assessed 18 patients with CRPS-I, and seven patients without the syndrome, but with similar symptoms.
One interesting finding was that many of the CRPS-I cases were brought on by medical procedures (think back to King Charles IX, but with a modern twist), rather than by traumatic events such as accidents.
Even more importantly, the researchers found strong evidence of a real physical cause for CRPS-I. By performing sensory testing, it was found that the limbs or other body parts affected by the syndrome were extremely sensitive to mechanically and heat-induced pain. Upon examination, these areas showed decreased nerve-fiber densities. The control patients with CRPS-I did not have this nerve-fiber problem.
This means that CRPS-I is an actual disorder brought on by a nerve injury, which affects those nerve fibers involved in a person’s pain experience.
This new finding is a source of vindication for those patients arguing with their doctors about whether or not their pain has a basis in reality. Let’s hope that this information will also lead to an effective treatment for the chronic pain of CRPS-I.