Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy: What You Need To Know

Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy, also known as RSD, is a crippling nerve disorder affecting millions of individuals throughout the United States. The neuro-autoimmune disease has had different names throughout its histories such as Post Sympathectomy Pain, Hyperpathic Pain, Mimocausalgia, and Complex Regional Pain Syndrome. It is often referred to as the “suicide disease” due to the high percentage of deaths associated with its symptoms. RSD is a progressive neurological condition that can affect all extremities of the body. It starts in one area but is likely to spread throughout the body during its progression. It is best described as an injury to a nerve or soft tissue that does not follow the standard healing path.

What Causes Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy?

The causes of RSD vary from person to person, but can be caused by incidents so small that the patient may not ever recall having an injury in the first place. According to, “these minor injuries can be as insignificant as whiplash, a sprain, broken bone, or the following surgery in a few cases.” Other causes in more severe cases can occur after surgery, an infection, and even burns. In rare occasions, it can develop after a heart attack. Unfortunately, there are no laboratory tests to diagnose this severe disease. The cause is still not entirely understood, but there is a knowledge that it occurs after slight nerve damage following an injury as stated above.

Reflex sympathetic dystrophy doctor

Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy is a rare condition that can be severely debilitating

Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy & Complex Regional Pain Syndrome

RSD is a disorder that can affect individuals of any age but is most common between the ages of 40 and 60. It seems to occur more frequently in females than males, but in rare cases, it has affected children and young adults.


Signs & Symptoms You Might have Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy

According to the National Organization for Rare Disorders, “the symptoms of reflex sympathetic dystrophy most commonly affect an arm and shoulder, and sometimes a leg and hip.” The disease comes on slow and begins with stiffness, a burning sensation, and weakness. These symptoms can result in cause severe chronic pain. There are notes on record of patients saying that it feels similar to falling asleep on your arm, and the area affected is unable to be moved in any direction because of the excruciating burning and tingling pain. Other patients have also said the pain is similar to your limbs feeling as though they were actually on fire. More signs of RSD include skin in the affected area becoming dried out and shiny.

Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy: The Suicide Disease

The suicide rates in the RSD community are disturbingly high due to the intensity of the pain, insomnia, and the lack of a cure by medical professionals. Depression runs rampant, and sufferers describe a sense of feeling completely hopeless due to the constant pain. Individuals also describe not being able to be around loud noises because the vibrations go right through them.

Treating Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy

Unfortunately, there is no standard treatment for this disorder; Doctors suggest that prevention and early treatment is recommended. It is not possible in cases where individuals are unaware due to slow onset. Ice and Heat treatment are avoided because they overstimulate the nerves which cause more pain. While the patient is asleep, it is recommended that the area is splinted to help prevent deformities. Diet, exercise, and physical therapy are keys in battling this disease.

Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy & Pain Management

Although RSD does not have a discernable treatment method, medical professionals work with patients that have the disease to provide pain management options. Here are some of the following:

  • Topical Pain Relievers and Topical Analgesics
  • Antidepressants and Anticonvulsants
  • Corticosteroid
  • Bone-loss medications
  • Sympathetic nerve-blocking medications
  • Intravenous Ketamine
  • Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS)
  • Physical Therapy
  • Biofeedback Therapy and Spinal Cord Stimulation Therapy


RSD is a debilitating and life changing disorder, but there are options and organizations willing to assist your every need. Please contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline if you are ever feeling suicidal. There are national non-profit organizations such as RSD Hope dealing directly with people that are suffering from this disorder. You are not alone in this fight.

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