Reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD) is a condition of chronic, burning pain; stiffness; swelling; sweating; and discoloration of the hand or arm that may become disabling. It occurs from over-activity in the sympathetic (unconscious) nervous system that controls the blood flow, sweat glands, and other involuntary bodily functions. Additionally, a patient with RSD who sustains an injury usually feels a greater amount of pain than a person without RSD who has sustained the same injury.

RSD has three stages:

  • Acute: May last up to three months. Symptoms include pain and swelling, increased warmth and redness in the affected part/limb, and excessive sweating.
  • Dystrophic: Can last three to 12 months. Swelling is more constant, skin wrinkles disappear, skin temperature becomes cooler, and fingernails become brittle. Pain is more widespread, stiffness increases, and the affected area becomes sensitive to touch.
  • Atrophic: Lasts one year or more. The skin of the affected area is now pale, dry, tightly stretched and shiny. The area is stiff, pain may decrease, and the chance of getting motion back is decreased.

Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy Causes

In some cases, the cause of RSD is unknown. RSD may follow a sprain, fracture, injury to nerves or blood vessels, or the symptoms may appear after a surgery. Other causes include pressure on a nerve, infection, cancer, neck disorders, stroke, or heart attack.

Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy Treatment

The pain of RSD may be severe, resulting in physical and psychological alterations. A coordinated multidisciplinary approach to treatment is best, which may include medication (oral and injections), physical or occupational therapy, and/or surgery.



Make an Appointment

For more information or to schedule an appointment with a hand and wrist specialist, call our scheduling line. 

Phone: 202-295-0549

Hand and Wrist Specialist

Michael Kessler, MD
Michael Kessler, MD
Curtis M. Henn, MD
Curtis M. Henn, MD