Reflex sympathetic dystrophy: facts and hypotheses

Vasc Med. 1998;3(3):207-14. doi: 10.1177/1358836X9800300305.


Reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD) syndrome has been recognized clinically for many years. It is most often initiated by trauma to a nerve, neural plexus, or soft tissue. Diagnostic criteria are the presence of regional pain and other sensory changes following a noxious event. The pain is associated with changes in skin colour, skin temperature, abnormal sweating, oedema, and sometimes motor abnormalities. The clinical course is commonly divided into three stages: first (acute or hyperaemic), second (dystrophic or ischaemic), and third (atrophic) stage. The diagnosis is primarily clinical, but roentgenography, scintigraphy, thermography, electromyography and assessment of nerve conduction velocity can help to confirm the diagnosis. Although a wide variety of treatments have been recommended, the only therapies found to be effective in large studies aim at interfering with the activity of the sympathetic nervous system. To this end, efferent sympathetic nerve activity can be interrupted surgically or chemically. Alternatively, adrenoceptor blockers may be used to relieve pain. Numerous theories have been proposed to explain the pathophysiology. Sympathetic dysfunction, which often has been purported to play a pivotal role in RSD, has been suggested to consist of an increased rate of efferent sympathetic nerve impulses towards the involved extremity induced by increased afferent activity. However, the results of several experimental studies suggest that sympathetic dysfunction consists of supersensitivity to catecholamines induced by (partial) autonomic denervation. Besides, it has been suggested that excitation of sensory nerve fibres at axonal level causes release of neuropeptides at the peripheral endings of these fibres. These neuropeptides may induce vasodilation, increase vascular permeability, and excite surrounding sensory nerve fibres -- a phenomenon referred to as neurogenic inflammation. At the level of the central nervous system, it has been suggested that the increased input from peripheral nociceptors alters the central processing mechanisms.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Causalgia / etiology
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Humans
  • Microcirculation / physiopathology
  • Peripheral Nerve Injuries
  • Peripheral Nerves / physiopathology
  • Rats
  • Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy* / pathology
  • Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy* / physiopathology
  • Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy* / therapy
  • Skin / blood supply
  • Sympathetic Nervous System / physiopathology
  • Terminology as Topic