Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy Syndrome (RSDS)

What is it?

Arthritis is a complex family of musculoskeletal disorders consisting of more than 100 different diseases or conditions that destroy joints, bones, muscles, cartilage and other connective tissues, hampering or halting physical movement. Reflex sympathetic dystrophy syndrome, or RSDS for short, involves a disturbance in the sympathetic nervous system which is the network of nerves located alongside the spinal cord and controls certain bodily functions, such as opening and closing blood vessels or sweat glands. It primarily affects the hands and feet.

What are the effects?

There are three distinct stages of reflex sympathetic dystrophy syndrome.

First Stage

  • Affected area is painful and swollen.
  • Changes in temperature and color of skin
  • Rapid nail and hair growth
  • Stiffness

The second stage occurs after weeks or months, and includes the following symptoms:

  • Burning pain
  • Cool skin
  • Brittle nails
  • Swelling
  • Muscles spasms

The third stage may result in permanent changes such as:

  • Severe pain
  • Skin may become drawn.
  • Muscles and other tissues become wasted and contracted (tight).
  • Joint movement and limb function are reduced.

How is it diagnosed?

To diagnose RSDS, your doctor will probably take a medical and family history and conduct laboratory tests.

What are the treatment options?

An early diagnosis and treatment can help reduce or prevent permanent damage. Treatments may include:

  • Biofeedback
  • Exercise
  • Medications: alpha-blocking drugs, calcium channel blockers, local anesthetic blockers, Bien block
  • Physical therapy
  • Surgery
  • TENS unit (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation)

What resources are available?

The Arthritis Foundation leads the way in helping people with arthritis live better today and create better tomorrows through new treatments, better access and, ultimately, cures. We do this by:

  • Funding life-changing research that has restored mobility in patients for more than six decades
  • Fighting for health care policies that improve the lives of the millions of Americans with arthritis
  • Partnering with families to provide empowering programs and information

If you are diagnosed with RSDS, some Arthritis Foundation resources that may help you better manage and live with your disease are: