Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy Syndrome Can Be the Cause of Ongoing Pain in a Limb

Get help for RSDS pain.If you have been experiencing severe pain in one or more of your limbs for several months, you may be suffering from something called reflex sympathetic dystrophy syndrome (RSDS). RSDS is the result of nerve damage that leads to malfunction in your immune and sympathetic nervous systems. As the damaged nerves misfire, your brain receives a surplus of pain signals—and the results can upend your day-to-day life.

The Symptoms of RSDS 

While RSDS is more common in the upper extremities, it may also occur in the lower extremities. Regardless of the site of the issue in the body, symptoms are the same and may include:

  • Discomfort, pain, and/or a burning sensation
  • Stiffness in muscles and/or joints
  • Muscles weakness, spasms, and/or atrophy
  • Increased sensitivity to heat and/or cold
  • Increased sweating in the affected area
  • Redness or paleness of the skin in the affected limb
  • Swelling, tenderness, and/or feeling warm to the touch
  • Changes to nails and/or hair

Over time, these symptoms may spread and become more severe.

Meanwhile, those with RSDS are also at risk for developing mental health issues related to the condition. These may include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

The Common Causes of RSDS

It is not always obvious what the initial cause of a person’s RSDS was. But in the vast majority of cases, the likely culprit is fairly apparent. Causes may include:

  • Bodily trauma including broken bones and amputation
  • Soft tissue injuries including bruises, burns, and sprains
  • Infections
  • Heart attack or stroke
  • Cancer
  • Surgery or radiation therapy
  • Pressure on the nerves
  • High levels of emotional stress or other mental health issues
  • Paralysis affecting one side of the body

Diagnosing RSDS

In addition to a physical exam and a thorough review of your medical history, there are a number of tools and tests your doctor may employ to arrive at a diagnosis of RSDS. These include:

  • Peripheral nerve blocks. By blocking the nerve(s) suspected of causing chronic pain, your doctor can correctly identify (or rule out) the specific source of the problem.
  • Bone scans, X-rays, and MRIs. These imaging techniques can reveal changes in the bones, mineral loss, and tissue changes, respectively.
  • Sympathetic nervous system tests.  These tests can identify disturbances related to RSDS.

Treating RSDS

There are a number of approaches to treating RSDS, all of which are intended to reduce or eliminate the chronic pain associated with the disorder. As a rule, your doctor will likely start by recommending more conservative treatments. If these treatments do not provide relief, more aggressive approaches may be necessary. 

Treatment options include:

  • Pain relievers. If over-the-counter pain medications do not fully address the symptoms, prescription medication may be in order. Great care must be taken with stronger pain medications and a specialist in pain management may be advisable.
  • Physical therapy. Specific gentle exercises may improve strength and mobility while also alleviating pain.
  • Corticosteroids. Steroid medications are often effective at reducing inflammation and improving mobility.
  • Sympathetic nerve-blocking medications. An injected anesthetic can block pain signals to the brain and provide relief.
  • Spinal cord or transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS). Electrical impulses applied to the spinal cord or nerve endings can ease pain.
  • Antidepressants and anticonvulsants. Some antidepressant and anticonvulsant medications can be used to treat pain that originates from a damaged nerve.

Dr. Williams Has the Expertise You Need 

Reflex sympathetic dystrophy syndrome is a complex condition that is not always easy to diagnose or treat effectively. Fortunately, Dr. Eric H. Williams has both the expertise and the experience necessary to properly identify the disorder and to recommend potential treatments so that you can find relief from ongoing pain and reclaim your active lifestyle. If you have been struggling with pain in your limbs for quite some time and have not found a solution, contact us right away to learn about ways we can help.

Eric H. Williams MD
Specializing in reconstructive surgery and pain relief in the Greater Baltimore area.