Difference Between CRPS & RSD

When it comes to chronic pain syndromes, there are a lot of terms that are thrown around, and it can get confusing at times. Two of the most commonly confused terms are complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS) and reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD).

What is CRPS?

Complex regional pain syndrome is a chronic pain disorder usually caused by trauma, injury to the limb, or physical/psychological stress. It is characterized by severe and persistent burning pain in one limb, as well as changes in skin color, temperature, and texture.

However, it is not uncommon for CRPS to spread to other parts of the body. In addition to physical symptoms, CRPS can also cause psychological conditions such as anxiety and depression and reduced cognitive function due to its debilitating effects.

What most people don’t realize is that CRPS is an umbrella term that refers to two subtypes. CRPS type I (formerly known as reflex sympathetic dystrophy) and CRPS type II (previously referred to as causalgia).

What is RSD?

Reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD), or CRPS type I, is a subtype of complex regional pain syndrome that occurs after an injury, surgery, or infection. In most cases, the pain will develop without any apparent damage to the nerves, as opposed to CRPS type II (causalgia) – which is usually associated with identifiable nerve damage.

RSD is characterized by extreme burning pain, swelling of the affected limb, and skin color changes (redness or pallor). It can also cause stiffness, impaired motor control, and sweating of the affected limb.

How is CRPS Treated?

Pain Management

Pain management is an important part of treating CRPS. The goal of pain management is to help reduce the severity and frequency of flare-ups through medication or noninvasive treatments such as massage therapy.

Commonly used medications for pain management include anti-inflammatory drugs (such as ibuprofen), opioids (such as hydrocodone or oxycodone), muscle relaxants, antidepressants, anticonvulsants, topical creams or ointments, and ketamine infusions.

In addition to medications, physical therapy can also be beneficial in managing pain associated with CRPS. Physical therapy helps reduce stiffness in the joints and muscles while strengthening them to improve overall mobility and range of motion. 

Interventional Treatments 

Interventional treatments for CRPS include nerve block injections, electrical nerve stimulation, and sympathectomy. These treatments can help block the transmission of pain signals or prevent the nervous system from becoming over-sensitized to pain – which can result in “false” or exaggerated pain signals.

In some cases, surgery may also be necessary to remove or repair damaged nerves. Surgery is usually only recommended if other treatments have proven ineffective.  

Alternative Treatments and Self-Care

In addition to conventional treatments, numerous alternative treatments and lifestyle modalities can help manage symptoms for some people. These include acupuncture, biofeedback, exercise, physical therapy, dietary changes, proper stress management, and sleep hygiene.

It is also important to practice self-care when living with CRPS by avoiding activities that could aggravate the condition. This includes things like prolonged sitting or standing, extreme temperatures, heavy lifting, and repetitive motions. 

These complementary approaches can be extremely beneficial when used alongside conventional medical care; however, it is advisable to consult your doctor before commencing any alternative treatment regimen to ensure safety and effectiveness.

The Takeaway

Although the term CRPS and RSD are closely related and often used interchangeably, there is some clinically significant distinction between the two. CRPS is more of an umbrella term that encompasses both RSD (CRPS type I) and another subtype known as causalgia (CRPS type II).

But regardless of the distinction, all forms of CRPS are characterized by debilitating levels of pain and a variety of other disruptive symptoms. Luckily, with the right care and treatment approach, it is possible to manage the condition and reduce flare-ups.

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