Causalgia and reflex sympathetic dystrophy: does the sympathetic nervous system contribute to the generation of pain?

Muscle Nerve. 1999 Jun;22(6):678-95. doi: 10.1002/(sici)1097-4598(199906)22:6<678::aid-mus4>;2-p.


The striking response of causalgia and reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD) to sympatholytic procedures together with signs of autonomic nervous system abnormalities suggest that the sympathetic efferent system can generate or enhance pain (sympathetically maintained pain, SMP). This concept is supported by human and animal experiments indicating that sympathetic activity and catecholamines can activate primary afferent nociceptors. Some clinical evidence, however, calls the SMP concept into question and alternative explanations have been advanced. In this review, we describe the clinical features of causalgia and RSD and the evidence for sympatholytic efficacy. The major barrier to proving the SMP concept is that all available sympatholytic procedures are problematic. We conclude that, although the weight of current evidence supports the SMP concept and its relevance to causalgia and RSD, it remains unproven by scientific criteria. More careful adherence to diagnostic criteria and well-controlled trials of sympatholysis are needed to finally settle the issue.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Causalgia / complications
  • Causalgia / diagnosis
  • Causalgia / physiopathology*
  • Humans
  • Neuralgia / complications
  • Neuralgia / diagnosis
  • Neuralgia / physiopathology*
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Postoperative Complications
  • Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy / complications
  • Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy / diagnosis
  • Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy / physiopathology*
  • Sweating / physiology
  • Sympathetic Nervous System / physiopathology*
  • Sympathetic Nervous System / surgery
  • Vascular Diseases / etiology