What is Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy Syndrome?

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  • Written By: wiseGEEK Writer
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 13 January 2019
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Reflex sympathetic dystrophy syndrome (RSDS) is also called complex regional pain syndrome or causalgia. The condition continues to baffle doctors since little is known about its cause. Plenty is known about how to recognize reflex sympathetic dystrophy syndrome, and to diagnose it, but unfortunately not all doctors do diagnose it immediately. At present, the condition, which may affect up to a million Americans a year (though lower figures suggest 200,000 a year), has no cure, though many treatments can help reduce symptoms.

Most people who get reflex sympathetic dystrophy syndrome notice it in a limb that has been injured or that has undergone surgery. Very occasionally, surgery on the chest can cause symptoms to appear there. Most commonly, reflex sympathetic dystrophy syndrome causes much more pain than would ordinarily be felt when a person is recovering from an injury. The affected limb may swell, be very sensitive to even a light touch and people may feel a constant burning pain in the affected area. The skin can also have a discolored appearance.

Doctors make distinctions between two types of reflex sympathetic dystrophy syndrome, labeling them by Roman numeral. In Type I, there may be no clear reason why the limb is affected, as from injury or surgery. Type II usually has a defined “event” or cause that began the condition, though doctors are still unclear exactly how injury or surgery creates misfiring of the nerves.


There is no specific way to diagnose the condition through blood test or x-rays, though these may be done to rule out other conditions. Instead, most doctors evaluate symptoms through physical examination. They also may review medical history to see if they can point to any traumatic events that might have triggered the condition. The little that is known about reflex sympathetic dystrophy syndrome is that it does involve misfiring of the nerve tissue in the affected area. In worst case scenarios, this can result in extremely limited use of the area affected, and constant pain and disability.

Generally, doctors aim to treat symptoms of reflex sympathetic dystrophy syndrome through medication, physical therapy and counseling. Some people mistakenly believe that the syndrome is psychosomatic, or the result of psychological issues. This is not the case, though chronic pain can definitely create issues of depression and anxiety. These in turn can lead to being in more pain. Some people with RSDS benefit from clinics where pain is addressed through medication and a cognitive behavior therapy approach.

Various treatments can include a number of different pain medications, and some patients are helped by pain “blocks” that help reduce feeling in the affected area. Physical therapy may help to offset some pain, and to retain some use and range of motion. Treatment is best begun early, so unusual pain that lingers after a surgery or injury should be brought to the attention of a physician. Unfortunately reflex sympathetic dystrophy syndrome may not be diagnosed right away, and yet more unfortunately, claims of greater pain may be dismissed.



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Post 2

Could you please tell me if RSD is related to muscular dystrophy? Thanks, Karen

Post 1

Hi my name is Jan. 4 years ago i had a operation on my right leg. Unfortunately through surgery i ended up getting RSD. I have also learned today after still having lots of problems with my leg that i now have drop foot.

Your article is very helpful to those who have just been diagnosed with RSD, because like me unless it happens to you, you probably will never of heard of it.

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