Why Does CRPS Spread?

Why Does CRPS Spread? - Kairos Restorative Medicine in TX

Why Does CRPS Spread?

Complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS) is a debilitating condition that can cause severe pain and discomfort. While the exact cause of CRPS is not fully understood, it is known that the condition can spread to other parts of the body. Understanding why CRPS spreads is crucial in developing effective treatment strategies. This article will delve into the various factors that contribute to the spread of CRPS and explore potential treatment options.

Understanding CRPS: An Overview

Defining CRPS: What is it?

CRPS, previously known as reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD), is a neurological disorder that affects the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system controls various bodily functions, including blood flow, heart rate, and sweating. In CRPS patients, there is believed to be an abnormal response within this system, leading to chronic pain and other symptoms.

The exact cause of CRPS is not fully understood, but it is thought to involve a combination of factors. It can occur after an injury, such as a fracture, sprain, or surgery, but sometimes there is no obvious trigger. The abnormal response of the sympathetic nervous system is believed to play a significant role in the development and progression of CRPS.

CRPS is classified into two types: CRPS type 1, which occurs without a confirmed nerve injury, and CRPS type 2, which occurs after a confirmed nerve injury. Both types share similar symptoms and treatment approaches, but the underlying mechanisms may differ.

The Prevalence of CRPS

The spread of CRPS occurs in a significant number of patients. Research suggests that approximately 30% of individuals with CRPS experience symptoms spreading to other areas of the limbs. This spreading or generalization phenomenon, leads to increased pain and disability, making effective management crucial.

Spreading of CRPS can be unpredictable and may vary from person to person. It can involve adjacent limbs or even affect distant parts of the body. The reasons behind the spread of CRPS are not fully understood, but it is believed to be related to the abnormal functioning of the sympathetic nervous system and changes in the central nervous system.

Effective management of CRPS requires a multidisciplinary approach, involving healthcare professionals from various specialties. Treatment may include a combination of medications, physical therapy, occupational therapy, psychological support, and other invasive interventions to address the underlying abnormalities in the nervous system.

It is therefore critically important for individuals with CRPS to seek early diagnosis and treatment to prevent the condition from spreading and to improve their quality of life. Research and advancements in understanding CRPS continue to provide hope for better management and potential future treatments.

The Mechanism of CRPS Spread

The Role of the Nervous System

One hypothesis suggests that the nervous system plays a key role in the spread of CRPS. Nerve pathways in the spinal cord may become sensitized, leading to the transmission of pain signals to neighboring areas. This sensitization can result in the expansion of CRPS symptoms beyond the initial injury site.

Imagine a network of intricate highways within your body, with the spinal cord acting as the central hub. When an injury occurs, it’s like a traffic accident that disrupts the flow of information along these highways. These changes seem to occur in the autonomic nervous system. These “dysautonomic” features could explain the changes in skin integrity, skin tone, and hair loss that are sometimes seen.

In the case of CRPS, this disruption can cause a ripple effect, where the pain signals that were initially confined to a specific area start to spread like a domino effect. The nervous system, in its attempt to protect the body, can inadvertently amplify the pain response, leading to the expansion of CRPS symptoms.

Furthermore, the nervous system is a complex and interconnected web. Just as a small pebble thrown into a pond creates ripples that reach the farthest corners, the sensitization of nerve pathways in the spinal cord can send pain signals cascading through neighboring areas. This phenomenon, known as central sensitization, can contribute to the spread of CRPS.

The Impact of Inflammation

Inflammation is another crucial factor in the spread of CRPS. When an injury occurs, the body’s immune response triggers inflammation to promote healing. However, in cases of CRPS, the inflammation can become chronic and spread to adjacent tissues. This chronic inflammation may further sensitize the nervous system, contributing to the spread of the condition.

Think of inflammation as a double-edged sword. In its acute form, it is a necessary and beneficial response that helps the body heal. However, when inflammation persists and becomes chronic, it can wreak havoc on the body’s delicate balance. In the case of CRPS, the chronic inflammation not only impacts the affected area but can also extend its reach to neighboring tissues.

Chronic inflammation can lead to pain amplification. As the inflammation spreads, it can activate immune cells and release inflammatory molecules that further sensitize the nervous system. This heightened sensitivity can then amplify the pain signals, causing the symptoms of CRPS to spread and intensify.

Moreover, chronic inflammation can affect blood vessels, leading to impaired circulation and vascular problems causing skin discoloration.

Understanding the mechanism behind the spread of CRPS is a complex puzzle that researchers continue to piece together. By unraveling the intricate interplay between the nervous system and inflammation, we can hope to develop more effective treatments and interventions for those living with this debilitating condition.

Symptoms Indicating CRPS Spread

Physical Symptoms

CRPS can be difficult to diagnose in the early stages since the pattern of symptoms and types of pain do not fit with typical pain or injury patterns. “Allodynia” (pain due to a stimulus that does not normally provoke pain or pain that is “out of proportion”) and skin color changes should prompt consideration of CRPS.

Physical symptoms of CRPS in later stages are easier to detect since they can include soft tissue and joint swelling and contracture (tight and misshapen joints), changes and temperature, hair loss, muscle weakness, and . These symptoms often extend beyond the initial injury site, affecting nearby areas of the body. “Allodynia” (pain due to a stimulus that does not normally provoke pain) is also common.

Psychological Symptoms

CRPS can also have psychological impacts on individuals. Anxiety, depression, and changes in mood are commonly observed in patients with CRPS, particularly as the condition spreads. The interplay between physical and psychological symptoms highlights the complexity of CRPS as a whole.

Risk Factors for CRPS Spread

Genetic Factors

Genetic predisposition may play a role in the spread of CRPS. Studies have found familial clustering of the condition, suggesting a hereditary aspect. Identifying specific genetic markers associated with CRPS spread could potentially aid in early detection and personalized treatment approaches.

Environmental Factors

Environmental factors, such as repetitive stress injuries and certain surgical procedures, have been associated with an increased risk of CRPS spreading. These factors can trigger or exacerbate the condition, making it essential to address these risks during diagnostic and treatment processes.

Treatment Options for CRPS

Medication and CRPS

Medication can play a vital role in alleviating pain and reducing the spread of CRPS. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), opioids, anticonvulsant drugs such as gabapentin or pregabalin, and certain antidepressants (tricyclics) are commonly used to manage pain. Additionally, medications that target inflammation can help dampen the inflammatory response associated with CRPS spread.

Physical Therapy and CRPS

Physical therapy is another essential component of CRPS treatment. Gentle exercises, stretching, graded motor imagery, mirror therapy, and joint mobilization techniques can help improve range of motion and minimize stiffness. Physical therapists also employ desensitization strategies to help retrain the nervous system and reduce pain sensitivity. The sooner physical therapy is initiated, the better the chances of preventing or minimizing CRPS spread.

Surgical Procedures and CRPS

Neuromodulation including spinal cord stimulation and dorsal root ganglion stimulation can be part of an effective treatment plan. These devices are implanted into the body and modulated neural signaling from the central and peripheral nervous system.

Stellate Ganglion Blocks and CRPS

The stellate ganglion is a “star shaped” cluster of cell bodies and an important relay center for the sympathetic nervous system (part of the autonomic nervous system). Temporarily “blocking” or anesthetizing this key neural ganglion of the autonomic nervous system can allow for immediate relief and also long-term relief even after the medication has been eliminated from the body. These long-term effects can only be explained by rewiring or neuroplastic changes in the nervous system.


In conclusion, the spread of CRPS is a complex phenomenon that involves the nervous system, inflammation, and various other factors. Recognizing the symptoms indicating CRPS spread and identifying risk factors can aid in early intervention. Moreover, a multimodal treatment plan (medications, physical therapy, occupational therapy, psychological support, and other invasive interventions) is essential in managing CRPS and minimizing its spread.

Ongoing research and a comprehensive understanding of the mechanisms behind CRPS spread are crucial for developing effective treatment strategies that improve the lives of those affected by this debilitating condition. Contact Kairos Restorative Medicine today to receive a free consultation about whether ketamine infusions and other related therapies are right for you.


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