Which RSD treatment will help with pain management and healing? Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy, or RSD, is a class of chronic pain complaints that can follow an injury or illness. This unpredictable condition may occur after a minor fracture or sprain, or a major event like a stroke or surgery. RSD is characterized by pain, sensitivity, and additional symptoms that can’t be explained by an X-ray or other diagnostic tools. Yet, for patients in need of RSD treatment, the pain is all too real. Some patients may ultimately need aggressive drug treatments and therapies to cope with RSD pain. Others, however, find relief with holistic and natural therapies.
RSD Treatment Options You Can Explore
In this Article:
- Understanding RSD
- RSD Symptoms
- Vitamin C Therapy
- Mirror Therapy
- How to Do Mirror Therapy at Home
- Fish Oil Supplements
- Capsaicin Cream
- What About Other Home Treatments?
For people who have little experience with this condition, one of the first elements of confusion is the different abbreviations for what seems to be the same condition -- CRPS vs. RSD. The explanation is that Complex Regional Pain Syndrome has two variations. One affects only about 10 percent of CRPS patients and is characterized by nerve damage. It is known as “Type 2” CRPS.
Type 1, also known as Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD) syndrome, is far more common. For that reason, RSD and CRPS can be considered interchangeable, unless otherwise specified by a patient’s doctor. RSD is the type of complex regional pain that occurs after an injury or illness that does not involve nerve damage.
Either type of CRPS is characterized by pain in a specific limb that can’t be fully explained by the original illness or injury. The causes of CRPS are not completely understood. It’s believed that a complicated nervous system response to bodily trauma can cause “crossed wires” that cause some patients to feel the pain that’s out of proportion to the bodily damage. The phenomenon is related to the more well-known “phantom limb” pain that amputees are known to experience.
Some of the main symptoms of RSD, also known as Type 1 CRPS, include:
- Pain that’s centered in a limb or extremity. In other words, a hand, foot, leg, or arm is involved.
- Pain in the limb or extremity described as either burning or throbbing.
- Muscle spasms and weakness in the injured limb or extremity.
- Alternating feelings of chills and sweating in the affected limb or extremity.
- Increased sensitivity to temperature in the affected limb or extremity.
- Discoloration or texture changes in the affected limb or extremity.
- Unusual hair growth on arms or legs.
- Brittle and ridged toenails or fingernails.
- Joint pain or swelling in the affected limb or extremity. This can range from elbow and knee problems to difficulty with fingers or toes, depending on the location of the condition.
Vitamin C Therapy
Immediately after a bone break, your doctor may discuss methods of how to treat CRPS naturally, or how to prevent it from becoming a major problem in the first place. According to the Mayo Clinic, studies show that people who took extra Vitamin C after a wrist fracture were less likely to develop serious RSD. Doctors theorize that this is because the nutrient promotes bone healing so that the complex pain reactions from the injury don’t become well-ingrained.
If you are early into your post-injury phase, consider taking at least 500 mg of Vitamin C supplements each day. You can amplify the natural healing by eating and drinking Vitamin C-rich foods. These include fresh citrus fruits and citrus juices. Rosehip tea is another natural treatment for RSD that’s high in Vitamin C. In addition, add more Vitamin C to your diet with yellow peppers, broccoli, strawberries, brussels sprouts, and dark leafy greens such as spinach and kale.
If you’ve been coping with RSD for some time, Vitamin C alone will probably not be enough to prevent painful episodes. But it is still helpful to bump up your intake of the nutrient in order to speed healing of your original injury. Vitamin C also boosts your immunity as you cope with flare-ups.
Although a specialist may be able to guide you through mirror therapy with more precise instructions, the basic concept of mirror therapy is easy enough to do at home. Using a mirror allows your brain to correct existing “mixed wiring” when it comes to pain signals.
In essence, you are using your pain-free limb and a mirror to trick your brain into thinking that the injured limb is in motion. When your eyes appear to tell you that your injured limb isn’t in pain after doing the motions that usually cause discomfort, your brain will start to believe it. In turn, your brain will stop registering certain motions as “pain” after these mirror sessions.
How to Do Mirror Therapy at Home
To try it, sit or stand in front of a mirror. Think about the motions that generally bring about pain in your involved limb or extremity. It might be reaching up to comb your hair, or pivoting on one of your feet. Now, perform that motion with your healthy limb. In the mirror, it will look as if the unhealthy limb is performing the action. Over time, watching your “bum leg” painlessly perform a series of actions that normally causes aches and sharp twinges will convince your subconscious that there are no issues.
Mirror therapy sometimes involves more sophisticated techniques in a therapy session. But you can still recreate this natural treatment for RSD at home, especially if it’s your arm or hand that’s involved. Build or find a box that you can fit your arm into. For example, if you only need to put your forearm into it, choose a cardboard file box. Next, affix a large mirror onto one side of the box.
You can then place your injured arm into the box as you sit at a table. Set the mirrored side on the table, slightly to one side of you. The angle should be such that the mirror reflects your other arm. Next, motion with your uninjured arm. Your brain will perceive this as both arms moving at the same time, due to the angle of the mirror box. Again, this is a way to give your mind new associations of your arms moving together, with neither arm in pain.
Fish Oil Supplements
Omega-3 fatty acid pills, or fish oil supplements, have anti-inflammatory properties. This has been shown to be helpful for people with RSD problems, as well as problems like discogenic pain. The Mayo Clinic notes that along with mixed signals from the peripheral and nervous systems, “inappropriate inflammatory responses” can fuel RSD discomfort.
Talk to your doctor about the right dosage of Omega-3 fatty acid pills to take. It’s important to remember that high-dose fish oil pills can interfere with medications you might be taking for other conditions. That’s why it's advised to let your doctor give you a recommended dosage.
In addition to Omega-3 supplements, you can increase your intake of nutrients by eating more fatty fish, such as salmon, tuna, sardines, and mackerel. Flaxseeds also contribute more Omega-3s. Sprinkle the seeds over salads or toss them into your morning smoothie.
Hot chili peppers make up capsaicin cream. Not surprisingly, it has a warming effect on chilled limbs and helps fight inflammation. Harvard Medical School recommends it for RSD specifically, because of the ability of hot chili peppers to block pain signals.
As one of the recommended treatments for how to treat CRPS naturally, this topical treatment does not require a prescription. But your doctor may suggest a prescription capsaicin patch instead of a cream or ointment. The patches deliver stronger pain-blocking abilities.
If you want to go the completely homemade route, you’ll find recipes online for capsaicin cream. You can make this topical treatment yourself using a semi-solid oil like coconut oil, blended with cayenne powder. But a professionally blended dosage while experimenting with how it reacts on your arm may be a better idea, initially. A commercial product is less likely to overdo the hot pepper content. Over-exposure to capsaicin compounds has been linked to nerve tissue damage.
What About Other Home Treatments?
Because treatment for RSD is still being developed, you are likely to see conflicting advice about traditional natural remedies for chronic pain, such as hot or cold therapy. Normally, people use heating pads and/or ice packs to ease pain and swelling. But if you have nerve involvement from your previous injury, the extremes in temperature may actually aggravate your condition. Ask your doctor if your type of CRPS would be worsened by hot or cold therapy. If not, consider using compresses, heat pads, or ice packs to warm or cool your aggravated limb.
Learn more about CRPS and RSD with this video below:
Finding the right RSD treatment can be complex, whether a patient is seeking a conventional or holistic option. If necessary, seek out a specialist who understands this understudied health problem. Before you can begin to explore the natural remedies for chronic pain caused by complex regional pain syndrome, remember to determine if it’s Type 1 (RSD) or Type 2. Knowing whether nerve damage is involved -- as happens with Type 2 -- will make a difference in exploring how to treat CRPS naturally.
Do you suffer from CRPS? Which RSD treatment have you tried that worked for you? Share your experience in the comments section below.