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Brain. 2001 Mar;124(Pt 3):587-99.

Vascular abnormalities in reflex sympathetic dystrophy (CRPS I): mechanisms and diagnostic value.

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Klinik für Neurologie, Christian-Albrechts-Universität, Kiel, Niemannsweg 147, 24105 Kiel, Germany.


Complex regional pain syndrome type I (CRPS I, formerly known as reflex sympathetic dystrophy) is a painful neuropathic disorder that develops after trauma affecting the limbs without overt nerve injury. Clinical features are spontaneous pain, hyperalgesia, impairment of motor function, swelling, changes in sweating, and vascular abnormalities. In this study, the pathophysiological mechanisms of vascular abnormalities were investigated. Furthermore, the incidence, sensitivity and specificity of side differences in skin temperature were defined in order to distinguish patients with definite CRPS I from patients with extremity pain of other origin. In 25 CRPS I patients and two control groups (20 healthy subjects and 15 patients with other types of extremity pain), cutaneous sympathetic vasoconstrictor activity was altered tonically by the use of controlled thermoregulation. Whole-body temperature changes were induced with a thermal suit in which cold or hot water circulated. The vascular reflex response (skin blood flow, laser Doppler flowmetry, skin temperature, infrared thermometry) was analysed to quantify sympathetic outflow. Measurements were performed during a complete thermoregulatory cycle, i.e. during the entire spectrum of sympathetic vasoconstrictor activity from high (whole-body cooling) to low sympathetic activity (whole-body warming). Venous noradrenalin levels were determined bilaterally in five CRPS patients. (i) Three distinct vascular regulation patterns were identified related to the duration of the disorder. In the "warm" (acute) type of regulation, the affected limb was warmer and perfusion values were higher than in the contralateral limb during the entire spectrum of sympathetic activity. In the "intermediate" type of regulation the limb was either warmer or colder. In the "cold" (chronic) type of regulation, skin temperature and perfusion values were lower on the affected side during the entire spectrum of sympathetic vasoconstrictor activity. (ii) Noradrenalin levels were lower on the affected side, even in chronic patients with considerable cutaneous vasoconstriction. (iii) Temperature and blood flow differences between the two sides were dynamic and most prominent at a high to medium level of vasoconstrictor activity. (iv) In both control groups, there were only minor side differences in flow and temperature. In conclusion, it is suggested that, in CRPS I, unilateral inhibition of sympathetic vasoconstrictor neurones leads to a warmer affected limb in the acute stage. Secondary changes in neurovascular transmission may lead to vasoconstriction and cold skin in chronic CRPS I, whereas sympathetic activity is still depressed. Vascular abnormalities are dynamic. The maximal skin temperature difference that occurs during the thermoregulatory cycle distinguishes CRPS I from other extremity pain syndromes with high sensitivity and specificity.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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