What is Complex Regional Pain Syndrome?

Chronic pain can be debilitating, and finding relief can feel like an uphill battle. For some, complex regional pain syndrome is the cause of their pain. But what is complex regional pain syndrome? There is no cure, and this condition affects only about 200,000 people in the U.S. each year. But that doesn’t mean that relief isn’t out there. There are both conventional treatments and natural remedies that can work hand-in-hand to help alleviate symptoms of this complicated condition.

What is Complex Regional Pain Syndrome?

Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, or CRPS, is a type of chronic pain that typically affects a leg or arm. Some people develop CRPS after they experience a:

  • Stroke
  • Heart attack
  • Injury
  • Surgery

The pain is usually more severe than the injury itself.

There are two main types of CRPS:

  • Type 1: The most common type that affects 90% of people. Type 1 is also known as reflex sympathetic dystrophy or RSD. It commonly occurs after an injury or illness that did not impact the nerves directly.
  • Type 2: Although Type 2 has similar symptoms to Type 1, it occurs after a direct injury to the nerve.

Complex Regional Pain Syndrome Causes and Symptoms

what is complex regional pain syndrome person holding their wrist in pain from crps close up over wood table

CRPS is rare and still not well understood by doctors. Doctors still aren’t sure what causes the condition, but it is believed to be triggered by an abnormality or injury of the central or peripheral nervous system.

Most cases of CRPS develop after trauma to the leg or arm, such as a fracture or crushing injury. Heart attacks, surgeries, and infections can also cause this condition.

The most common conditions that lead to CRPS include:

  • Fractures, especially wrist fractures. 
  • Surgical procedures that cause nerve injury.
  • Strains and sprains.
  • Cuts or burns that damage nerves.
  • Poor nerve health. Nerve toxins and conditions like diabetes can damage nerve health.
  • Poor circulation after an injury.

Only a small percentage of people with CRPS (less than 10%) report not having an injury or trauma.


People with CRPS may experience the following symptoms:

  • Throbbing or burning pain that won’t go away
  • Changes in skin color
  • Swelling 
  • Sensitivity to cold or touch
  • Sudden changes in skin temperature
  • Nail or hair growth changes
  • Skin texture changes
  • Stiff joints
  • Muscle tremors, spasms, and weakness
  • Limited mobility in the affected area

CRPS is a complicated condition, and symptoms may change over time. Symptoms can also vary from person to person. 

Pain, hypersensitivity, and swelling are typically the first signs of CRPS. As the condition progresses, the affected arm or leg may become pale and cold. You may also experience skin changes, muscle spasms, and other issues. Once these signs appear, CRPS is irreversible.

If left untreated, CRPS can progress and become more debilitating. Advanced CRPS can cause:

  • Muscle tightening.
  • Deterioration of the skin, muscles, and bones (also known as atrophy). This can cause fingers or toes to contract and remain in a fixed position.

Complex Regional Pain Syndrome Treatments

Sometimes, CRPS will heal on its own. This is more common with mild or early cases. However, most people will seek treatment for this condition. The earlier CRPS is diagnosed and treated, the better.

Common conventional treatments for CRPS include:


CRPS patients may be prescribed medications to help manage their symptoms. These can include:

  • Pain relievers: Over-the-counter pain relievers may be recommended for mild cases, but doctors can prescribe stronger pain relievers in more serious cases. 
  • Corticosteroids: Steroids such as prednisone may help improve mobility of the limb and reduce inflammation.
  • Antidepressants: Doctors may prescribe antidepressants when the pain is caused by a damaged nerve.
  • Nerve blockers: Your doctor may inject a local anesthetic to help block and alleviate pain.

In some cases, a spinal-fluid drug pump may be implanted, which delivers medication right into the fluid that covers the spinal cord and nerve roots. The medication may include a blend of opioids, clonidine, baclofen, and local anesthetics.

Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation

There are several therapies that may be used to help treat CRPS, including:

  • Occupational or physical therapy: It’s important to keep the affected limb moving and blood flowing to the area. A physical therapist may also recommend changes to daily activities to improve range of motion and help reduce pain. 
  • Spinal cord stimulation: A type of therapy that places stimulating electrodes along the outside of the spinal cord. These electrodes create tingling sensations in the affected area and help temporarily block pain sensations. The goal is to normalize pain signals.
  • Biofeedback techniques: These techniques can help you become more aware of the sensations in your body, allowing you to relax painful areas and reduce pain.


When CRPS progresses, many people develop secondary mental illnesses, including anxiety, depression, and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). These conditions can make symptoms worse and make it harder for patients to seek help for their condition. 

Complex Regional Pain Syndrome Natural Remedies

There is no cure for CRPS and managing symptoms can be challenging. Many people with CRPS turn to natural remedies to help bring pain relief, including:

what is complex regional pain syndrome foods with magnesium around mg chalkboard remedy crps


Magnesium is a crucial mineral and plays a role in more than 300 body processes, including pain signals. The mineral is believed to affect N-methyl-D-aspartate, or NMDA, receptors and can help with the prevention of pain hypersensitivity.

Magnesium is often taken in supplement form or used topically to help ease anxiety, prevent muscle cramps and alleviate muscle pain. There is some evidence that this mineral may help with CRPS symptoms as well. 

One study found that intravenous magnesium helped reduce pain in eight patients compared to baseline results. Researchers concluded that magnesium helped improve pain and quality of life while being well-tolerated. 

In addition to helping combat pain, magnesium can also help prevent bone loss.

Essential Oils

Essential oils have long been used to help combat pain. Today, they’re even used in hospitals to help patients deal with pain and other post-op symptoms. 

While there are several essential oils that can help ease pain, the most popular and effective ones for CRPS include:

  • Frankincense: Several studies (here, here, and here) show that frankincense essential oil can help combat pain.
  • Lavender: A relaxing essential oil that can also help with pain and healing. One study found lavender essential oil to be an effective anti-inflammatory and analgesic. Other studies (here and here) support claims that lavender can help ease different types of pain.
  • Helichrysum: One study in mice found that helichrysum essential oil can help stop spasms to reduce cramps and pain.
  • Geranium: The geranium plant is believed to have anti-inflammatory effects that may help with CRPS symptoms.
  • Ginger: Research (here, here, and here) suggests that ginger oil can help ease inflammation, which may help reduce pain.

Final Thoughts

CRPS is a complex condition, and if left untreated, can lead to debilitating complications. Early diagnosis and treatment are important. Natural remedies can further help reduce pain and other symptoms associated with this condition.

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