Medical Library: Shoulder – Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy

RSD is a chronic pain condition that is believed to be the result of dysfunction in the central or peripheral nervous systems. RSD involves irritation and abnormal excitation of nervous tissue, leading to abnormal impulses along nerves that affect blood vessels and skin.

RSD is not thought to have a single cause, but rather multiple causes producing similar symptoms.

RSD usually affects one of the extremities (arms, legs, hands, or feet). The primary symptom of RSD is intense, continuous pain.


  • Burning pain
  • Increased skin sensitivity
  • Skin temperature changes (warmer or cooler than opposing extremity)
  • Skin color changes (blotchy, purple, pale, red)
  • Skin texture changes (shiny, thin, sweaty)
  • Changes in nail and hair growth patterns
  • Stiffness and swelling in affected joints
  • Decreased ability to move affected extremity

Pain can spread to a wider area (i.e. from finger to entire arm) and can spread to the opposite extremity (i.e. from left arm to right arm). Emotional stress can cause symptoms to worsen.