We set out to determine patterns of spread of CRPS and the factors that are associated with spread. Our results show that CRPS usually affects one limb but in some cases it spreads to another limb, most often in a contralateral (53%) or ipsilateral (32%) pattern and usually without secondary trauma. A diagonal pattern of spread was nearly always triggered by a new trauma. Spontaneous spread and spread after a separate trauma followed different patterns.
The mechanism underlying spontaneous spread of CRPS to other limbs is unclear. Common patterns of spontaneous spread of CRPS may hint at the origin of the pattern. Spread after a separate trauma followed no particular pattern, which strongly suggests that CRPS in one limb does not specifically predispose a particular other limb to CRPS and supports the idea that these patients have multiple CRPS rather than CRPS of multiple limbs. In contrast, spontaneous spread to the contralateral limb was 2.3 times more likely that spread to the ipsilateral limb and 25 times more likely than diagonal spread. This result casts light on previous reports of similar rates of ipsilateral and diagonal spread (Veldman and Goris 1996
) because that work did not differentiate between spontaneous and second trauma-related spread.
Patients with a spontaneous onset or who have a familial form of CRPS develop the syndrome at a younger age and are more likely to have a more severe phenotype (de Rooij et al. 2009a
). Additionally, CRPS patients younger than 50 have an increased risk of having siblings with CRPS (de Rooij et al. 2009b
). In line with these studies, patients with Multiple-CRPS more often exhibited movement disorders and also had a significantly younger age at onset of CRPS than patients with Single-CRPS. Collectively, these findings indicate that in patients with a younger onset of CRPS, genetic factors may play a role in the onset or chronicity of the syndrome. A genetic predisposition is also suggested by associations that were found with different human leukocyte antigen (HLA) class I and II factors (de Rooij et al. 2009c
; Kemler et al. 1999
; van Hilten et al. 2000
; Vaneker et al. 2002
). Interestingly, HLA class I molecules have been implicated in non-immune roles including neuroplasticity (Corriveau et al. 1998
; Goddard et al. 2007
The dominant patterns of spontaneous spread observed here strongly suggest that CRPS does not spread according to some systemic vulnerability, but is more likely to spread via spinal or cortically mediated mechanisms.
Pain that spreads contralaterally has been reported in CRPS and other chronic pain conditions, such as atypical facial pain (Woda and Pionchon 2000
), phantom limb pain (Pohjolainen 1991
) and repetitive strain injury (Miller and Topliss 1988
). Several animal models of neuropathic pain and CRPS have reported contralateral spread of symptoms after nerve lesions or inflammation (Coderre et al. 2004
; Coderre and Melzack 1992
; Koltzenburg et al. 1999
). In a recent rat model of CRPS, 57% of the animals exhibited contralateral hindpaw mechanical hypersensitivity after unilateral needle stick distal nerve injury (Siegel et al. 2007
). Following an intradermal injection of capsaicin, human subjects developed contralateral hyperalgesia and allodynia (Shenker et al. 2008
). The etiology behind the contralateral spread of pain is largely unknown; however, increasing evidence from experimental studies on neuropathic pain suggests that contralateral changes arise via altered spinal processing of incoming sensory information (Koltzenburg et al. 1999
; Watkins and Maier 2002
). This may be mediated by growth factors via commissural interneurons in the spinal cord and brainstem. In addition, spinal glia cells and pro-inflammatory cytokines have been documented as important factors behind the contralateral spread of symptoms (Hatashita et al. 2008
; Milligan et al. 2003
In contrast to the number of studies on contralateral spread, data on mechanisms underlying spread of symptoms to the ipsilateral limb are scarce. Axial spread of disease along the spinal cord is well documented for degenerative diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and infectious agents such as the poliovirus (Brooks 1991
). It is conceivable that glial mediated changes at one segment of the spinal cord can reach remote segments by axonal transport via descending or ascending fibre tracts. This is also suggested by a recent autopsy paper on a patient with longstanding CRPS that started in the left leg, but eventually spread to all limbs (Del Valle et al. 2009
). The researchers demonstrated a significant loss of posterior horn cells and activation of both microglia and astrocytes not only at the site of the initial injury, but also extending throughout the entire length of the spinal cord. These diffuse alterations may support the hypothesis that segmental changes in the spinal cord induced by CRPS in one limb, may not only spread to the contralateral side but can also extend more rostrally and caudally from the initially affected segment. Interestingly, this latter study (Del Valle et al. 2009
) also reported that the greatest degree of microglial cell activation in the spinal cord was seen in the left lumbar segments and the least in the right cervical cord, which suggests that ispilateral changes are induced more easily than diagonal changes.
Another explanation for the spread of symptoms may be found at the supraspinal level. Rommel et al. (1999
) showed hemisensory impairment in CRPS patients with only one affected limb, and that this was more common in those with left-sided CRPS. They proposed that the result may reflect functional alterations in the thalamus. Relevant to this is the recent discovery of space-based, but not arm-based shift in tactile processing in people with CRPS of one arm (Moseley et al. 2009
). Of further relevance here is the observation that left-sided CRPS is associated with a higher hazard of spontaneous spread-space-based tactile neglect after stroke commonly involves the left side of the body, consequent to right sided brain damage (Bisiach et al. 1979
Contralateral spread probably involves different supraspinal mechanisms. Noxious stimuli activate bilateral regions of the brain associated with descending control pathways including the thalamus and rostral ventral medulla, which suggests one putative mechanism for mediating altered spinal gating contralaterally (Bantick et al. 2002
; Urban and Gebhart 1999
). Additionally, the growing body of data implicating cortical changes in CRPS (see Swart et al. 2009
for review), offer potential mechanisms. For example, watching the mirror-image of the unaffected limb being touched elicits pain on the affected side (Acerra and Moseley 2005
) and referred sensations of a tactile or painful stimulus were also experienced outside its expected somatic territory (McCabe et al. 2003
). Forrs et al. (2005
) describe a patient with chronic CRPS type-1 in whom pain and motor symptoms spread to the contralateral arm, and whole-head-magnetoencephaloghy demonstrated abnormal bilateral activation in the primary somatosensory cortices to unilateral tactile stimuli, which suggests that interhemispheric spread of cortical activation may contribute to contralateral spread. Furthermore, supraspinal glia and glial-derived proinflammatory cytokines may play a role in spread of symptoms as well as their major influence on pain modulation (Watkins and Maier 2002
). Whether these supraspinal changes can initiate spread of CRPS symptoms or if they are secondary to peripheral or spinal processes remains to be elucidated.
Our study demonstrates that if CRPS develops spontaneously in more than one limb, there is a greater risk of spread to subsequent limbs without the requirement of a new trauma. This accelerated occurrence has been documented for clinical manifestations of other diseases and probably reflects changes in the central nervous system, perhaps in an attempt to adapt to the altered condition by remodelling of neuronal contacts and circuits, a process also known as neuronal plasticity (Harrison 1999
; Linazasoro 2005
; Sutula 2004
; Woolf and Salter 2000
Interpretation of our results should consider some methodological issues and limitations. A retrospective design is less accurate than prospective designs and may result in incomplete data, although such issues would seem unlikely to bias the results in one direction over another. Furthermore, follow-up data were not available and Single-CRPS patients had shorter disease duration than patients with Multiple-CRPS, which raises the possibility that some Single-CRPS patients would have ultimately developed Multiple-CRPS if we left it longer to find out. We addressed this issue by controlling for disease duration in the analysis. As it is likely that major traumas are better recalled than minor ones, the frequency of minor trauma may be underestimated. One can argue that these patients may be incorrectly labeled as “spontaneous spread”. However, to address the objective of this study we felt it was best to use a clear definition of trauma (soft tissue injury, fracture, surgery) that does not include “microtraumata”. Notably, this study was performed in a tertiary center for movement disorders which may lead to overrepresentation of patients with severe or multiple CRPS. However, the objective of this study was to evaluate the spread of symptoms and not the prevalence of multifocal CRPS. Finally, we are aware that this is a descriptive study, and that the pathophysiological aspects we discussed have not been tested.
In conclusion, this study shows that spread of CRPS symptoms often occurs spontaneously and contralateral spread is twice as likely as ipsilateral spread, but diagonal spread is rare. We contend that these patterns of spread implicate spinal cord and/or supraspinal mechanisms rather than systemic mechanisms, although further work is required to elucidate them in detail.