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What Are the Symptoms of RSD?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Jan 26, 2024
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The symptoms of RSD, or reflex sympathetic dystrophy syndrome, include severe, burning pain, varying hot or cold skin, tenderness, inflammation, and skin discoloration in the painful area. These and other symptoms are separated into four stages, with the fourth stage rarely experienced. The illness worsens over time and people may respond better to treatment if they’re diagnosed at an earlier point. In the majority of cases, RSD begins after a patient undergoes medical trauma or is injured.

Probably one of the most understood features of this difficult disorder is what occurs in each particular stage. Some of the most telling symptoms of RSD in its early stages include initially receiving an injury or experiencing a major trauma like a stroke. In Stage I, which may alternately be called the acute phase, people develop burning pain around the affected place, often a limb. Touching this area may increase the pain, and the skin may also perceptibly become cold or hot, at intervals. These symptoms alone justify speaking to a physician about the likelihood of an RSD diagnosis.

Most injuries get better, but those with this condition will notice that their normal expectations for recovery are not met. In other words, the injury continues to hurt much longer than it should. The symptoms of RSD dramatically worsen as people progress to Stage II, or the dystrophic phase. Pain becomes extreme at times, and touching the injured area dramatically increases discomfort. Other physical symptoms of RSD in the dystrophic phase include ridging on the nails and discoloration of the skin, and sometimes mental and emotional symptoms like depression, irritability, and memory loss occur.

During the atrophic phase, or Stage III, the pain continues, and the skin surrounding the painful area can turn thin or appear shiny. One of the possible symptoms of RSD at this stage is spreading of the pain to previously unaffected areas. People may also suffer reductions in their ability to move. Stage I and II usually take no more than a year, but Stage III can last for numerous years.

The last phase of RSD is rarely encountered. Prior to reaching this stage, patients often try various interventions that eventually stop the disease progression. If Stage IV occurs, organs and other body parts may be massively affected. Sometimes amputation is considered, if the original locus of injury is a limb.

Those experiencing the symptoms of RSD are likely to feel discouraged and find it difficult to cope. In later stages, people may be completely disabled by this disorder. Since more successful treatment begins in the early part of this illness, it is exceptionally important to bring this condition to the attention of doctors right away.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon992696 — On Sep 24, 2015

Interventions that eventually stop the disease progression? Oh please, do tell. I'm listening.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia...
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