Synergy Health Partners

Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy


Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD), also known as Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS) Type I, is a chronic pain condition that typically affects the limbs. It is characterized by severe, prolonged pain and changes in skin color, temperature, and/or swelling in the affected area. The condition usually develops after an injury or surgery but can occur without an identifiable cause.


The exact cause of RSD is not well understood, but it is thought to involve abnormal responses of the nervous system. Potential triggers include:

  • Injury: Fractures, sprains, or soft tissue injuries.
  • Surgery: Post-surgical complications.
  • Immobilization: Prolonged immobilization of a limb.
  • Minor Trauma: Even minor injuries or medical procedures can trigger RSD.


Symptoms of RSD can vary in intensity and duration, often affecting one limb but potentially spreading to others. Common symptoms include:

  • Persistent, Severe Pain: Burning or throbbing pain that is disproportionate to the initial injury.
  • Swelling: Swelling in the affected limb.
  • Skin Changes: Alterations in skin color, texture, and temperature; skin may appear shiny, thin, or excessively sweaty.
  • Sensitivity: Increased sensitivity to touch or temperature changes.
  • Joint Stiffness: Reduced range of motion and stiffness in the joints.
  • Motor Dysfunction: Weakness, tremors, or muscle spasms.


RSD is often divided into three stages:

  1. Stage I (Acute): Lasts 1-3 months; symptoms include severe pain, swelling, and changes in skin color and temperature.
  2. Stage II (Dystrophic): Lasts 3-6 months; pain continues, swelling may increase, skin becomes cool and pale, and joint stiffness worsens.
  3. Stage III (Atrophic): Occurs after 6 months; the affected area may become permanently damaged with muscle wasting, severe joint stiffness, and functional limitations.


Diagnosing RSD involves a comprehensive evaluation to rule out other conditions. This typically includes:

  • Medical History and Physical Examination: Detailed assessment of symptoms, medical history, and physical signs.
  • Diagnostic Tests: May include X-rays, MRI, bone scans, and nerve conduction studies to assess bone and nerve function.
  • Sympathetic Nerve Block: A diagnostic and therapeutic procedure where an anesthetic is injected to block sympathetic nerves and assess pain relief.


There is no cure for RSD, but early and aggressive treatment can improve outcomes. Treatment options include:

  • Medications: Pain relievers, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), corticosteroids, antidepressants, anticonvulsants, and nerve pain medications.
  • Physical Therapy: Exercises to maintain range of motion, strength, and function in the affected limb.
  • Sympathetic Nerve Blocks: Injections to block pain signals from the sympathetic nerves.
  • Occupational Therapy: Techniques to manage daily activities and improve hand function.
  • Psychological Support: Counseling and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to address the emotional impact of chronic pain.
  • Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS): Electrical stimulation to reduce pain.
  • Spinal Cord Stimulation: Implanted devices that deliver electrical impulses to the spinal cord to relieve pain.
  • Intravenous Immunoglobulin (IVIG): For severe cases, IVIG therapy may be considered.


The prognosis for RSD varies. Early diagnosis and treatment can lead to significant improvement, while delayed treatment may result in chronic pain and permanent disability. The condition can be challenging to manage, and ongoing treatment may be necessary to control symptoms and maintain function.


Preventing RSD involves addressing risk factors and minimizing the impact of injuries:

  • Prompt Treatment: Immediate and appropriate treatment of injuries and surgical complications.
  • Physical Therapy: Early mobilization and physical therapy after an injury or surgery.
  • Pain Management: Effective pain management strategies to prevent chronic pain.