What is Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy?
Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy Syndrome or RSD (also known as Complex Regional
Pain Syndrome) is a neurological syndrome characterized by disabling pain, usually
following some sort of neurological or bone injury (particularly fractures).
Other symptoms may include pathological changes in
bone and skin, excessive sweating, tissue swelling, and extreme sensitivity
While the clinical syndrome of RSD is distinct, there is no specific laboratory
test to diagnose RSD/CRPS. As a result, the diagnosis depends upon the physician's
assessment of the patient's complaints (medical history) as well as any objective
findings upon physical examination.
While RSD is not a rare disorder, it is rarely discussed. As a result, RSD
is generally poorly understood by patients, their families, and healthcare professionals.
Cases can range significantly in severity. RSD may affect millions of Americans.
It occurs after 1 to 2 % of various fractures and after 2 to 5% of peripheral
nerve injuries. It may also occur following surgery. The injury need not be
a major one; RSD can even develop as the result of sprains. In 10-20% of cases,
however, no causal event can be identified. Regrettably, the diagnosis is often
missed or delayed. While some mild cases may resolve without treatment, the
usual pattern of spread is up the affected extremity and then may continue to
spread on the same side of the body or to the opposite extremity. RSD may even
spread to a distant site.
While RSD predominantly affects adults, it can start as young as 3 years old.
Too often, the complaints of chronic pain in children are not taken seriously,
or are treated as if they are affected by a purely psychological condition.
Affected children may develop psychological problems as a consequence of RSD,
however, especially if physicians, parents, teachers, and other children do
not believe their complaints of chronic pain.
One popular misconception about RSD is that there are no effective treatments.
While there is no one particular gold standard of therapy, the good news is
that there are many treatment options including various medications, sympathetic
nerve blocks, physical therapy, psychological support, and possibly sympathectomy,
or dorsal column stimulator. Patients may be best served with an individual
patient treatment plan, ideally supervised by a chronic pain clinic.
Created: 3/8/2004  - Donnica Moore, M.D.