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RSD (Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy)

Complex Disorder of Pain, Altered Sensation and Reduced Motion


Updated June 12, 2014

Woman massaging her ankle on boulder
Kris Ubach and Quim Roser/Collection Mix: Subjects/Getty Images
RSD (reflex sympathetic dystrophy), also known as complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS), is a complex disorder that may develop as a result of injury (which is most common), surgery or disease. RSD consists of unexplained intense pain in a part of the body which has been injured, and includes altered sensation and reduced motion in the body part affected. Once thought to be a rare disorder, reflex sympathetic dystrophy occurs in people of all ethnic backgrounds, with women affected twice as often as men. RSD most commonly occurs in adults in their 20s to 50s, but may occur at any age.


Symptoms of RSD often begin days or weeks after an injury, usually in an arm or leg which has been injured. The symptoms may include:
  • unexplained intense pain, out of proportion to the injury
  • swelling
  • altered skin temperature, either warm or cold
  • altered skin color
  • reduced motion of the affected part, and movement makes the symptoms worse
  • sensitivity to touch
  • abnormal sweating


Diagnosis of RSD is mainly based on the symptoms present. There is no specific blood test for RSD, but blood tests can exclude other disorders. Some specialized diagnostic tests may be helpful in confirming the diagnosis of RSD in some individuals.


Early diagnosis and treatment of RSD is best. A pain specialist should be part of the treatment team for an individual affected by RSD. Steroid medications such as prednisone can provide pain relief. Opioid pain medications such as morphine are also effective. Other treatments may include antiepileptic drugs, antidepressants, and creams applied to the skin for treatment of the pain. Some individuals may have pain relief with injection of local anesthetic around nerves to the affected area (nerve block).

Physical and occupational therapy also are important in the treatment of RSD to improve the movement of the affected part of the body.


When treated early, many individuals with RSD have relief of symptoms within 18 months. Others individuals, unfortunately, develop chronic pain and disability. Researchers do not know why some people improve while others do not. It is also not known exactly what causes RSD. Future research will no doubt discover how and why RSD begins, how it develops, and identify those individuals at risk for chronic disease.


"NINDS Complex Regional Pain Syndrome Information Page." Disorders A - Z. 24 Apr 2009. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. 21 Jul 2009

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