Pain Syndrome (CRPS) Treatment: Desensitization
By Melanie E. Swan, OTR/L
People with CRPS may exhibit abnormal sensation throughout
all or part of the affected area. This often includes increased
sensitivity to stimuli such as touch, pressure, or temperature.
Desensitization can be an effective way to treat hypersensitivity,
especially when used in combination with other medical and/or
What do you mean "desensitization"?
Desensitization is a treatment technique used to modify
how sensitive an area is to particular stimuli. This technique
is utilized to decrease, or normalize, the body's response
to particular sensations.
How does desensitization work?
A desensitization program is designed to provide consistent
stimulus to the affected area for short periods of time, frequently
throughout the day. These small bursts of therapeutic activity
shower the brain with sensory input. The brain responds to
this demand by acclimating to the sensation, thereby gradually
decreasing the body's pain response to the particular stimuli.
In short, your body gets used to it-the stimulus becomes tolerable
and no longer elicits the maximal pain response.
What is used to desensitize an area?
Desensitization involves application of "unpleasant"
stimuli to the hypersensitive area. These stimuli are things
that the body is routinely exposed to and do not elicit a
painful response when presented to non-affected areas of the
body, thus they are not harmful or damaging. The items used
for desensitization vary, depending on what the affected area
interprets as painful. Stimuli may consist of different textures/fabrics,
light or deep pressure, vibration, heat or cold.
What does a desensitization program consist of?
Desensitization programs progress gradually from stimuli
that produce the least painful response to stimuli that produce
the most painful response. Once the affected area begins to
acclimate to the initial stimulus, the next stimulus is incorporated.
For example a desensitization program may progress from a
very soft material stimulus (ie, silk) to a rougher material
(i.e. wool) or textured fabric (i.e. Velcro). The course of
this progression may take several days to several weeks, depending
on the level of hypersensitivity.
Will desensitization get rid of my pain?
Desensitization may minimize your body's painful response
to various stimuli; however the affected area may still feel
uncomfortable when in contact with particular stimuli. The
goal of desensitization is to inhibit or interrupt the body's
interpretation of routine stimuli as painful. It does not
assure that these stimuli will become pleasant or enjoyable,
but that they will no longer provoke an extreme pain response.
How do I begin a desensitization program?
Speak with your physician or your therapist to determine
if this is an appropriate treatment for you. An Occupational
Therapist or Physical Therapist can develop a desensitization
program that meets your needs.
Updated July 19, 2005