Nervous System Home > Diagnosing Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy

Because other conditions have similar symptoms, and because reflex sympathetic dystrophy symptoms can resolve spontaneously, it can be very difficult to make a diagnosis. In fact, ruling out other conditions is the most important step in this process. To help make a diagnosis, the doctor often collects a detailed medical history, performs a physical exam, and conducts specific tests (like applying a stimulus to the affected area).

An Overview of Diagnosing Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy

To help in diagnosing reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD), your healthcare provider will often first gather a detailed medical history, which includes asking questions about your:
  • General health
  • Symptoms
  • Family medical history
  • History of trauma.


Your healthcare provider will also do a complete physical exam to check for other signs of reflex sympathetic dystrophy, and may recommend certain tests.


Tests Used in Making a Diagnosis

Since reflex sympathetic dystrophy has no specific diagnostic test, the most important role for testing is to help rule out other conditions. Some doctors apply a stimulus (such as touch, pinprick, heat, or cold) to the area to see if it causes pain. Doctors may also use a bone scan to identify changes in the bone and in blood circulation.

Difficulties in Making a Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy Diagnosis

Because many other conditions have similar symptoms, it can be difficult for doctors to make a firm diagnosis of reflex sympathetic dystrophy early in the course of the disorder, when symptoms are few or mild. For example, a simple nerve entrapment can sometimes cause pain severe enough to resemble reflex sympathetic dystrophy.
Diagnosing reflex sympathetic dystrophy is further complicated by the fact that some people will improve gradually over time without the need for treatments for RSD.
Written by/reviewed by:
Last reviewed by: Arthur Schoenstadt, MD
Last updated/reviewed:
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