The Vault

Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy

Information from the mayo clinic

Complex regional pain syndrome occurs in two types, with similar signs and symptoms, but different causes:

  • Type 1. Also known as reflex sympathetic dystrophy syndrome, this type occurs after an illness or injury that didn’t directly damage the nerves in your affected limb. About 90 percent of people with complex regional pain syndrome have type 1.
  • Type 2. Once referred to as causalgia, this type follows a distinct nerve injury.

Many cases of complex regional pain syndrome occur after a forceful trauma to an arm or a leg, such as a crush injury, fracture or amputation. Other major and minor traumas — such as surgery, heart attacks, infections and even sprained ankles — also can lead to complex regional pain syndrome. Emotional stress may be a precipitating factor, as well.

It’s not well-understood why these injuries can trigger complex regional pain syndrome, but it may be due to a dysfunctional interaction between your central and peripheral nervous systems and inappropriate inflammatory responses.

Signs and symptoms of complex regional pain syndrome include:

  • Continuous burning or throbbing pain, usually in your arm, leg, hand or foot
  • Sensitivity to touch or cold
  • Swelling of the painful area
  • Changes in skin temperature — at times your skin may be sweaty; at other times it may be cold
  • Changes in skin color, which can range from white and mottled to red or blue
  • Changes in skin texture, which may become tender, thin or shiny in the affected area
  • Changes in hair and nail growth
  • Joint stiffness, swelling and damage
  • Muscle spasms, weakness and loss (atrophy)
  • Decreased ability to move the affected body part

Symptoms may change over time and vary from person to person. Most commonly, pain, swelling, redness, noticeable changes in temperature and hypersensitivity (particularly to cold and touch) occur first.

Over time, the affected limb can become cold and pale and undergo skin and nail changes as well as muscle spasms and tightening. Once these changes occur, the condition is often irreversible.

Complex regional pain syndrome occasionally may spread from its source to elsewhere in your body, such as the opposite limb. The pain may be worsened by emotional stress.

In some people, signs and symptoms of complex regional pain syndrome go away on their own. In others, signs and symptoms may persist for months to years. Treatment is likely to be most effective when started early in the course of the illness.

When to see a doctor

If you experience constant, severe pain that affects a limb and makes touching or moving that limb seem intolerable, see your doctor to determine the cause. It’s important to treat complex regional pain syndrome early.