Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD)

Reflex sympathetic dystrophy, also called RSD, is one form of complex regional pain syndrome. It is marked by lasting pain that usually strikes an extremity, like your arms or legs.

In this post, we will answer some of the most pressing questions surrounding reflex sympathetic dystrophy, such as:

  • What is RSD?
  • What causes reflex sympathetic dystrophy?
  • What are the symptoms of reflex sympathetic dystrophy?
  • What types of injuries are known to lead to development of RSD?
  • What are the three stages of reflex sympathetic dystrophy?
  • What treatments are available for reflex sympathetic dystrophy?
  • How can Michigan Surgery Specialists help?

What Is RSD?

RSD, or reflex sympathetic dystrophy, is a relatively rare condition that strikes patients after an injury or illness. It is marked by nerve-related pain and discomfort, even though the injury did not damage any nerves in the affected area.

What Causes Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy?

The cause of RSD is still not clear, although it is thought to relate to issues with the sympathetic nervous system. This system is responsible for controlling your heart rate and blood pressure, as well as blood flow.

When an injury happens, your sympathetic nervous system narrows your blood vessels in order to help limit blood loss. Once the trauma has passed, the system widens the vessels. For people with reflex sympathetic dystrophy, the sympathetic nervous system receives the wrong signals. It does not turn back off after the injury, which causes painful symptoms.

What Are the Symptoms of Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy?

There are several different symptoms that patients with RSD will experience. However, the exact symptoms and the severity of those symptoms depends on the stage of the condition. Common symptoms across all three stages include the following:

  • Burning
  • Pain
  • Increased sensitivity to touch
  • Swelling
  • Joint stiffness
  • Excessive sweating
  • Faster than usual nail growth
  • Skin hot to the touch
  • Brittle nails
  • Dry, shiny skin
  • Decreased range of motion

What Types of Injuries Are Known to Lead to the Development of RSD?

As mentioned, it’s not currently known why some patients develop this condition. However, we do know some of the more common injury types that lead to reflex sympathetic dystrophy. These include:

  • Bone fractures
  • Cuts
  • Needle sticks
  • Amputations
  • Bruising
  • Burns
  • Radiation therapy
  • Sprains
  • Surgery

What Are the Three Stages of Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy?

Both type 1 and type 2 CRPS have the same three stages and the same symptoms in each stage. Those stages are as follows:

  • Stage 1 – Acute – Early signs and symptoms appear, including burning pain and increased sensitivity to touch. Swelling and joint stiffness follow.
  • Stage 2 – Dystrophic – Swelling increases and wrinkles in the skin vanish. Pain becomes greater and more widespread.
  • Stage 3 – Atrophic – Skin becomes dry and shiny, and swelling is pronounced. Lost range of motion is pronounced and may not be recoverable. Pain may decrease or may relocate to other areas of the body.

What Treatments Are Available for Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy?

Both nonsurgical and surgical treatments are available for patients suffering from RSD, although there is no cure. Early diagnosis and treatment are both vital for preventing patients from reaching stage 3.

Nonsurgical treatments include:

  • Medication. NSAIDs, like ibuprofen, and corticosteroids can be given. Other options include:
    • Anticonvulsants
    • Psychotherapy
    • Opioids
    • Nasal spray to treat bone loss
    • Anesthetic creams
    • Nerve blocking injections
    • Blood pressure medications
  • Splinting to help reduce pain in the hands
  • Therapy. Options include active exercise with a focus on the affected area. Both physical and occupational therapy can be used to great extent here. Medications are usually used to help patients reduce pain in order to participate in therapy. .
  • Injection therapy can be used to inject an anesthetic near the affected nerves to reduce discomfort.

Surgical treatment options include:

  • Pain Pump: A pain pump can be implanted in the patient’s abdomen, allowing pain medication to be delivered instantly to the spinal cord.
  • Spinal Stimulation: A surgeon can implant electrodes along the spinal cord that allow stimulation to occur, helping to control the nerves affected.
  • Sympathectomy: This is a surgical removal of some or all of the nerves in an affected area in order to restore normal blood flow.

How Can Michigan Surgery Specialists Help?

At Michigan Surgery Specialists, we have helped many patients struggling with reflex sympathy dystrophy. The experts as Michigan Surgery specialists can help diagnose and treat your condition.

Contact Michigan Surgery Specialists today to schedule an assessment.

Meet our physicians

Ara Bush

Ara N. Bush, M.D., FACS

Hand Surgery

reflex sympathetic dystrophy

Andrew M. Moore, M.D.


reflex sympathetic dystrophy

Angela Krug


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