FAQ: Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy

By Philip Getson, D.O. Board Certified Family Physician Assistant Professor of Neurology at Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia, PA
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On an episode of The Dr. Oz Show, TV personality Paula Abdul, confessed that she had a diagnosis of Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD) after years of debilitating pain and suffering. RSD is a little-known illness that afflicts millions of Americans. 

Q. What is RSD? And how does one experience it?

A. RSD or Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (now known as Complex Regional Pain Syndrome or CRPS) is a problem caused by malfunctioning of the autonomic nervous system. It usually occurs after a traumatic injury. It is characterized by intense pain, usually burning in nature, which seems to be out of proportion to the event which caused the problem.

Other symptoms include muscle spasms or tremors, increased sensitivity to even light touch, atrophy, increased sweating, color and/or temperature changes, altered hair and nail growth. Patients may also experience many internal manifestations such as hoarseness, sensitivity to light and sound, digestive issues, bladder problems, irregular heart rhythms, gynecologic issues, memory loss and compromised immune system functioning.

Q. What causes RSD/CRPS?

A. Most of the patients that I have examined have developed problems following an injury. Sometimes this is a motor-vehicle accident, a fall or other significant trauma. However, I have seen the devastating effects of the disorder following relatively innocuous events such as an inadvertent needle stick by a seamstress.

Q. How common is this problem?

A. It is currently estimated that anywhere from 1 to 5 million Americans have been diagnosed with this disorder. It is my opinion that the estimates are low and that the condition is far more widespread.

Q. If so many people have RSD/CRPS, why haven’t I heard more about it?

A. RSD/CRPS has no national spokesperson and research funding is limited. Furthermore, because the disease is poorly understood, the chronic pain from RSD/CRPS may be mistaken for pain from other physical or psychological conditions. This leads to a decrease in accurate diagnoses.

Article written by Philip Getson, D.O.
Board Certified Family Physician Assistant Professor of Neurology at Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia, PA...