What Is RSD?


Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy is a chronic pain condition that is also called Complex Regional Pain Syndrome. RSD comes with severe and constant pain and has been diagnosed in hundreds of thousands of people in the United States alone. It involves a serious malfunction of the person's nervous system in which nerves continue to send signals triggering pain to the brain. It usually occurs when a person is injured or has surgery.


RSD often begins to appear in a limb that has suffered an injury or where surgery has been performed. It is a poorly understood condition and hard to diagnose. Such problems as infections, joint diseases, burns, cuts, abrasions, and having a cast on can precipitate RSD. Many doctors have a difficult time in identifying RSD as its symptoms resemble other chronic pain disorders.


The symptoms of RSD include pain that can best be called a severe burning or aching feeling. There can be swelling where the pain is radiating from and the joints can be very tender. It may become difficult to move the arms and legs and this can lead to what is called atrophy, where muscles waste away from lack of use. Muscle spasms and sweating in the affected area of the body are possible and the skin can change color to reddish or even blue, appearing shiny. All of these symptoms do not necessarily occur but when three or more do then doctors will look closely at RSD as the potential cause.

Time Frame

RSD is recognized in three separate stages. The acute stage features the burning pain which continues into the dystrophic stage. The changes in the skin color and temperature along with possible changes in the bones happens as the dystrophic stage begins. During the atrophic stage of RSD movement of the affected area can become restricted but the pain can lessen. The time frame for these stages is six months for each one, but this can vary from patient to patient. RSD most often afflicts people between the ages of 40 and 60 but has been seen in people of any age.


When RSD is not diagnosed rapidly and treated in its early stages it can progress to more serious symptoms. Muscles can tighten and atrophy can set in, with the possibility of toes and fingers actually contracting into a permanent position. RSD can spread from its original area in the body, affecting parts of the body far from the initial site, migrating to the opposite limb, or taking control of an entire side of the body.


RSD can be alleviated when treatment begins quickly after symptoms manifest themselves. Medications to relieve pain, from prescription meds to over-the-counter types, can help greatly. Forms of steroids are utilized and bone-loss supplements are commonly used against RSD. Alternate use of hot and cold applications and physical therapy are also treatments for RSD. Nerve blocking medications and electrical impulses to short circuit pain signals aid in making RSD patients feel better.

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