Pain and the brain have a symbiotic relationship. They’re deeply intertwined and serve as the ultimate alarm system, warning you of the potential danger that either needs to be avoided or treated. So how does chronic pain affect the brain?
What is CRPS?
“Complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS) is a form of chronic pain that usually affects an arm or a leg. CRPS typically develops after an injury, surgery, a stroke, or a heart attack. The pain is out of proportion to the severity of the initial injury.”
CRPS is rare, and its reason for being isn’t clearly understood. Treatment, like ketamine, is most effective with early application.
Are There Different Types of CRPS?
Yes, there are two:
- Type 1 happens from tissue injury besides nerve tissue, like when bone and soft tissues get squashed in an accident. It may also occur following amputation, stroke, a heart attack, or cancer. Type 1 CRPS commonly happens once an injured limb is cared for with a splint or cast to restrain it.
- Type 2, which results from injury to nerves. Medication can effectively treat symptoms of both.
Know the Symptoms
Symptoms may include:
- Nonstop burning or throbbing pain, generally in the arm, leg, foot, or hand
- Sensitivity to cold or touch
- Swelling in the affected area
- Changes in skin temperature
- Changes in skin color
- Changes in skin texture, which may become thin, shiny, or tender in the affected area
- Changes in nail and hair growth
- Joint stiffness, damage, and swelling
- Muscle weakness and loss, spasms and tremors
- Less success with moving affected body parts
What Causes CRPS?
Some of the most widespread causes of complex regional pain syndrome include:
- Fractures, particularly wrist fractures.
- Surgical incisions, positioning, sutures, retractors, or post-operative scarring can cause nerve injury.
- Various sprains or strains.
- Less severe injuries like burns or cuts.
- A limb that has been immobilized. In some cases, a cast restricts blood flow when it presses on a nerve, but it also means the limb can’t be used for a time, depriving it of sensory input.
How Does CRPS Change Your Brain?
Complex regional pain syndrome can affect the brain in many ways, including distortions in body representation, shortages in lateralized spatial cognition, and non-spatially lateralized higher cognitive purposes.
“Some of these cognitive changes are reminiscent of other neuropsychological syndromes that can follow brain lesions, and some might be associated with chronic pain.”
Pain is a complex warning system protecting us from harm. If you hurt your toe, the peripheral nervous system transmits signals to your brain, and your brain is left with deciding how much danger exists. If your brain determines the signals are legitimate and worthy of further attention, the pain sensation is torqued up until the threat is resolved; if not, pain is muted.
Our natural warning system works reasonably well for localized pain, like an injured toe. But for chronic conditions like osteoarthritis, where there’s no easy solution, like, for example, decreased cartilage in the knee, the regions of your brain that send and transmit danger signals evolve and are more sensitive as we age. As the brain continually processes pain, it gets more observant until it’s an always-on warning system. All of this depends on your emotions, beliefs, and outlook, meaning your brain will likely continually register a mysteriously sore knee day after day.
This is how someone with chronic pain gets roped into self-perpetuating pain, but there may be a way to ratchet down an excessively sensitive brain and mediate chronic pain messages.
Diagnosis & Treatment
To get diagnosed with CRPS, you need to see a healthcare provider for a medical examination. This will include discussing pain details like when it happens and how often, as well as documenting your personal and family medical history. Some procedures may help identify the source of the pain:
- Bone scan to locate bone changes.
- Sweat production tests.
- Magnetic resonance imaging as the condition progresses.
Once you’ve been diagnosed, you and your healthcare provider can talk about treatment options. Popular methods include pain relievers, prescription medicine, and ketamine to alleviate pain symptoms.
CRPS may be uncommon – to everyone except you. Just because it’s not a widely understood condition, that doesn’t mean you have to sit back and suffer from the pain.