The clinical relevance of complex regional pain syndrome type I: The Emperor's New Clothes

Andrea T. Borchers, M. Eric Gershwin

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

19 Scopus citations


The management of patients with chronic pain is a nearly daily challenge to rheumatologists, neurologists, orthopedic surgeons, pain specialists and indeed a issue in nearly every clinical practice. Among the myriad of causes of pain are often included a unique syndrome, generally referred to as complex regional pain syndrome type I (CRPS). Unfortunately CRPS I has become a catch all phase and there are serious questions on whether it exists at all; this has led to an extraordinary number of poorly defined diagnostic criteria. It has also led to an etiologic quagmire that includes features as diverse as autoimmunity to simple trauma. These, in turn, have led to overdiagnosis and often overzealous use of pain medications, including narcotics. In a previous paper, we raised the issue of whether CRPS type I reflected a valid diagnosis. Indeed, the diagnostic criteria for CRPS I, and therefore the diagnosis itself, is unreliable for a number of reasons: 1) the underlying pathophysiology of the signs and symptoms of CPRS I are not biologically plausible; 2) there are no consistent laboratory or imaging testing available; 3) the signs and symptoms fluctuate over time without a medical explanation; 4) the definitions of most studies are derived from statistical analysis with little consideration to required sample size, i.e. power calculations; 5) interobserver reliability in the assessment of the signs and symptoms are often only fair to moderate, and agreement on the diagnosis of “CRPS I” is poor. Even physicians who still believe in the concept of “CRPS I” admit that it is vastly overdiagnosed and has become a diagnosis of last resort, often without a complete differential diagnosis and an alternative explanation. Finally, one of the most convincing arguments that there is no clinical entity as “CRPS I” comes from the enormous heterogeneity in sign and symptom profiles and the heterogeneity of pathophysiological mechanisms postulated. This observation is underscored by the diversity of responses among “CRPS I” patients to essentially all treatment modalities. It has even led to the concept that the signs and symptoms of CRPS can spread throughout the body, as if it is an infectious disease, without any medical plausible explanation. If true progress is to be made in helping patients with pain, it will require entirely new and different concepts and abandoning CRPS I as a legitimate diagnosis.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)22-33
Number of pages12
JournalAutoimmunity Reviews
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2017

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Immunology and Allergy
  • Immunology


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