Getting to the Root of RSD
Reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD) can affect both men and women and people of varied ages, from young children through to seniors. Like various medical conditions, the cause of RSD is not exactly clear and there may be a number of factors that contribute to its development. For some people struck down with it, there seems a logical explanation, but for others the cause for them appears a mystery. Here we take a look at some of the factors thought to contribute to the condition:
A lot of the time RSD develops after some form of injury, with an accident or surgery often leading to nerve damage, which the scientific research quotes as being the case in around of 87% of those affected. In some cases, even what may have appeared a minor injury at the time, has been a sufficient trigger; something as simple as pressure on a nerve, as is the case in carpel tunnel syndrome, may also be enough to spark RSD. However, even when injury does appear to have been the contributing factor, there does not necessarily have to be any actual damage to the nerves for RSD to occur. What is definitely clear though is that the pain and altered sensation after whatever might have happened, continues and appears too great to have been due to the injury itself.
A range of infections have been linked to RSD. Both bacterial infections such as Lyme disease, syphilis and cystitis, and viral infections such as glandular fever, HIV and herpes can contribute to its development. In some people, when their body’s immune system fights the infection, it over-responds producing inflammation within the body, which can damage nerve fibres. Alternatively, the immune system may be triggered to attack the body’s own tissues, which may include the nerves; when this occurs, the protective casing around the nerve fibres is eroded, leading to widespread pain. This so called autoimmune damage may occur months or even years after the initial infection; obviously some people appear more vulnerable to this than others, which may be down to their genetics. Sometimes, when the infection has similar symptoms to RSD, as might be the case in Lyme disease, it is difficult to know exactly which is contributing to how you feel and which is the more dominant in the body.
Heart disease and stroke
While both these conditions might seem quite different from a physical injury or infection, they still appear to have the potential to lead to RSD; plenty of patients who have survived a heart attack or stroke can vouch for that. There are also cases documented in medical journals of how patients who have undergone procedures such as having a pacemaker or cardiac catheter fitted, have later developed RSD; though this may relate more to the operation rather than it being to do with the heart. How cardiovascular disease and RSD are associated is thought to be due to the reduced blood flow seen in the two conditions, with constricted blood vessels a key feature in RSD. As well as being a possible causative factor in RSD, the condition is known to worsen existing cardiac problems due to its effect on blood supply.
A study from 1988, conducted by the Medical College of Ohio, was the first to identify a link between smoking and RSD as well as other types of lung disease; researchers found that 68% of those in the study with RSD smoked compared to 37% of the patients with other medical problems. A more recent study from Korea has also shown RSD to be significantly more likely in smokers. It has been suggested that smoking may increase the risk of developing RSD by increasing activity of sympathetic nerves – the ones that usually prepare your body to react if danger is looming – and by causing the blood vessels to narrow, altering blood flow. However, neither of these studies proves smoking causes RSD. Additionally, studies are yet to be carried out to see whether stopping smoking helps with symptom relief or disease progression in RSD. However, the other health benefits of quitting are undisputable, so breaking the habit with the help of stop smoking aids may help with your health overall. However, it’s understandable if smoking is a source of comfort, helping some of those affected to manage their symptoms and feelings.
-Written By Jennifer Hamilton