Sensory abnormalities are a key feature of Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS). In order to characterise these changes in patients suffering from acute or chronic CRPS I, we used Quantitative Sensory Testing (QST) in comparison to an age and gender matched control group.
61 patients presenting with CRPS I of the upper extremity and 56 healthy subjects were prospectively assessed using QST. The patients' warm and cold detection thresholds (WDT; CDT), the heat and cold pain thresholds (HPT; CPT) and the occurrence of paradoxical heat sensation (PHS) were observed.
In acute CRPS I, patients showed warm and cold hyperalgesia, indicated by significant changes in HPT and CPT. WDT and CDT were significantly increased as well, indicating warm and cold hypoaesthesia. In chronic CRPS, thermal hyperalgesia declined, but CDT as well as WDT further deteriorated. Solely patients with acute CRPS displayed PHS. To a minor degree, all QST changes were also present on the contralateral limb.
We propose three pathomechanisms of CRPS I, which follow a distinct time course: Thermal hyperalgesia, observed in acute CRPS, indicates an ongoing aseptic peripheral inflammation. Thermal hypoaesthesia, as detected in acute and chronic CRPS, signals a degeneration of A-delta and C-fibres, which further deteriorates in chronic CRPS. PHS in acute CRPS I indicates that both inflammation and degeneration are present, whilst in chronic CRPS I, the pathomechanism of degeneration dominates, signalled by the absence of PHS. The contralateral changes observed strongly suggest the involvement of the central nervous system.