Complex regional pain syndrome: a comprehensive and critical review

Autoimmun Rev. 2014 Mar;13(3):242-65. doi: 10.1016/j.autrev.2013.10.006. Epub 2013 Oct 23.


Complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS) is a term used to describe a variety of disorders characterized by spontaneous or stimulus-induced pain that is disproportional to the inciting event and accompanied by a myriad of autonomic and motor disturbances in highly variable combinations. There are no standards which can be applied to the diagnosis and would fulfill definitions of evidence-based medicine. Indeed, there are almost as many diagnostic criteria as there are names to this disorder. The umbrella term CRPS has been subdivided into type I and type II. CRPS I is intended to encompass reflex sympathetic dystrophy and similar disorders without a nerve injury; while CRPS II occurs after damage to a peripheral nerve. There are numerous etiological pathophysiological events that have been incriminated in development of CRPS, including inflammation, autoimmune responses, abnormal cytokine production, sympathetic-sensory disorders, altered blood flow and central cortical reorganization. However, the number of studies that have included appropriate controls and have sufficient numbers of patients to allow statistical analysis with appropriate power calculations is vanishingly small. This has led to over-diagnosis and often excessive pharmacotherapy and even unnecessary surgical interventions. In this review we provide a detailed critical overview of not only the history of CRPS, but also the epidemiology, the clinical features, the pathophysiological studies, the proposed criteria, the therapy and, in particular, an emphasis that future research should apply more rigorous standards to allow a better understanding of CRPS, i.e. what it is, if it is, and when it is.

Keywords: CRPS; Inflammation; Neuropathy.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Autoimmunity
  • Autonomic Nervous System / physiopathology
  • Complex Regional Pain Syndromes / diagnosis
  • Complex Regional Pain Syndromes / epidemiology
  • Complex Regional Pain Syndromes / physiopathology*
  • Complex Regional Pain Syndromes / therapy
  • Genetic Predisposition to Disease
  • Humans
  • Nerve Block
  • Treatment Outcome