Based on bed-side neurological testing, it has recently been shown that 33% of chronic complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS) type I patients exhibit sensory impairments, which extend past the painful area of the affected limb in a hemisensory distribution (Pain, 80 (1999) 95). In the present study, the clinically observed changes in touch and temperature sensations on the side of the body ipsilateral to the affected limb were investigated quantitatively. Neurophysiological and psychological examinations were conducted to detect changes in the peripheral and central nervous system as well as psychopathological abnormalities.
In 40 patients with CRPS, a bed-side neurological examination was performed. Quantitative sensory testing was conducted at five locations on each side of the body. The evaluation of touch thresholds was performed using von Frey filaments (n=40). To measure cool, warm and heat pain thresholds quantitatively, a thermal stimulator using a Peltier-element was used (n=28). With respect to clinical findings, the initiating trauma and severity of abnormalities on nerve conduction testing, three patients were diagnosed as having a reliable CRPS II (causalgia) and five patients a possible CRPS II. Thirty-two patients were diagnosed as having a CRPS I.
On clinical examination, 15 patients revealed generalized sensory deficits on the side of the body ipsilateral to the affected limb (hemisensory deficit, n=12; sensory impairment in the upper quadrant of the body, n=3). Patients with these generalized sensory deficits had a significantly longer illness duration (P<0.05) and a significantly higher percentage of mechanical allodynia/hyperalgesia than patients with spatially restricted sensory deficits (n=25) (P<0.05). In patients with generalized sensory impairment, thresholds for touch, warm and cold sensations, and for heat pain were significantly increased at all five locations tested ipsilaterally compared with the contralateral body side, except for the cool threshold on the chest and the heat pain threshold distally on the affected limb. In patients with sensory deficits limited to the affected limb, the touch threshold was significantly higher only in the distal part of the affected limb when compared with the contralateral limb. In these patients, thermal testing revealed almost no differences in cool, warm and heat pain thresholds when comparing both sides. Repeated thermal testing conducted in five patients with generalized sensory impairment reproduced the significant differences between both sides for cool, warm and heat pain thresholds. However, the correlation between the results obtained in the first and second examinations was poor.
Neurophysiological recordings revealed pathological results in 46% for nerve conduction studies, 24% for somatosensory evoked potentials and 39% for sympathetic skin response. For all methods applied, there was no statistically significant difference in the incidence of pathological results between patients with generalized and patients with spatially restricted sensory abnormalities. Psychological examination using the structured clinical interview on DSM-IV (SKID) demonstrated a high frequency of affective and anxiety disorders, however, without significant differences between both groups.
We conclude that hemisensory impairment in patients with CRPS Type I is probably related to functional disturbances in processing of noxious events in the thalamus and may be a clinical correlate of subcortical brain plasticity in chronic pain.