MAKING COMPLEX REGIONAL PAIN SYNDROME SIMPLE FOR A JURY
A start-to-finish strategy for proving the chronic pain and resultant damages of CRPS
When God was testing the faith of Job, the worst punishment was physical pain…. He lost his lands and property, his family – but it was not until physical pain was inflicted that Job broke. (Job 16:6).
A case dealing with chronic pain can be difficult to prove due to the subjective nature of pain itself. This is especially true for Complex Regional Pain Syndrome cases (“CRPS”). CRPS, formerly known as Reflex Sympathetic Distrophy Syndrome (“RSD”), is an incurable chronic pain condition that is often debilitating. For trial lawyers and their clients, this disorder is especially troubling because of the controversy surrounding its diagnosis and treatment. As its very name implies, the disorder is “complex” in nature, is routinely misdiagnosed, and as such, is difficult to explain and prove to a jury.
Take a recent case that had a mixed diagnosis: Some doctors thought it was CRPS, while some did not. In the end, what mattered was our client had severe pain that would likely afflict him for the rest of his life. This was something the jury understood, whether we called it CRPS or not. The primary purpose of this article is to explain the basics of CRPS, highlight some of the challenges in dealing with a CRPS case, and discuss some useful strategies from a recent trial.
CRPS – WHAT IS IT?
CRPS is a chronic pain condition most often affecting one of the limbs (arms, legs, hands, or feet), in which the pain is out of proportion to thc injury. There are two designations of CRPS: Type I and II. Typc I, which this article will focus on, is a result of trauma. Type II stems from a specific injury to a nerve.
Some researchers have said CRPS is potentially the worst chronic pain disorder a human being could endure. Doctors describe the severe cases of CRPS as being higher on the pain scale than childbirth and amputation. However, over the years, pain management practitioners were overzealous in diagnosing chronic pain patients with CRPS. In the early 1990s, “RSD” cases were popping up everywhere, perhaps in part due to the unclear diagnostic criteria at the time. Now, after the hype has calmed and thorough research has flushed out a more clear understanding of the disorder, CRPS cases can and should command the same attention as other severe injuries such as brain and spinal cord injuries.
To begin with, CRPS arises typically after an injury or trauma to the affected limb. For example, a seemingly simple fracture to the ankle eventually causing a severe pain disorder in that limb. The most frightening aspect of the disease is that it often initially begins in an arm or a leg and often spreads throughout the body. In fact, according to the National Institute of Health, 92 percent of patients state that they have experienced a spread, and 35 percent of patients report symptoms in their whole body.
CRPS is characterized by prolonged or excessive pain and mild or dramatic changes in skin color, temperature, and/or swelling in the affected area. These signs can be subtle in nature, or dramatic, depending on the severity of the CRPS.
CRPS symptoms vary in severity and duration. The key symptom is prolonged pain that may be constant and, in some people, extremely uncomfortable or severe. The pain may feel like a burning or “pins and needles” sensation, or as if someone is squeezing the affected limb. The pain may spread to include the entire arm or leg, even though the precipitating injury might have been only to a finger or toe. Pain can sometimes even travel to the opposite extremity. There is often increased sensitivity in the affected area, such that even light touch or contact is painful (called allodynia).
People with CRPS also experience constant or intermittent changes in temperature, skin color, and swelling of the affected limb. An affected arm or leg may feel warmer or cooler compared to the opposite limb. The skin on the affected limb may change color, becoming blotchy, blue, purple, pale, or red. As discussed in more detail below, due to the complexity of the disorder, CRPS cases are often overlooked, misdiagnosed, and not properly worked up.
VETTING A CRPS CASE
As trial lawyers, we appreciate that many of our clients do not have the type of medical treatment and insurance required to get a complete medical workup and diagnosis. Often, an injury like a brain bleed or spinal fracture might go misdiagnosed. With a disorder such as CRPS, this is truly one of the injuries that often require an attorney’s eye and attention to appreciate the client’s dilemma.
The following are a few points to consider when interviewing a client to determine if he or she potentially has CRPS:
• An injury causing pain which is out of proportion to injury,
• Changes in skin texture on the affected area; it may appear shiny and thin,
• Abnormal sweating pattern in the affected area or surrounding areas,
• Changes in nail and hair growth patterns,
• Stiffness in affected joints,
• Problems coordinating muscle movement, with decreased ability to move the affected body part, and,
• Abnormal movement in the affected limb (most often fixed abnormal posture, or tremors of the affected limb).
For a full CRPS potential case checklist, please contact the author.
Find out more about:
What Causes CRPS?
CRPS Diagnosis and Prognosis
How to Deal with Conflicting CRPS Diagnoses
Voir Dire Tips in a Pain Trial
Experts: Get the Dream Team
Dealing with the Defense “Expert”
Making it Simple
COMPLEX REGIONAL PAIN SYNDROME
THE RELENTLESS PURSUIT OF JUSTICE
Diagnosis and Risk Factors
Prognosis and Treatment
Lawsuits and Damages
Spencer Lucas is a trial lawyer at Panish Shea & Boyle and specializes in complex catastrophic personal injury, products liability and wrongful death cases. He has extensive experience in cases involving traumatic brain injuries, spinal cord injuries, and chronic pain.
Panish Shea & Boyle, LLP
11111 Santa Monica Blvd #700, Los Angeles, CA 90025