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J Vasc Surg. 2002 Feb;35(2):269-77.

Surgical sympathectomy for reflex sympathetic dystrophy syndromes.

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  • 1Department of Vascular Surgery, University of South Florida College of Medicine, Tampa, USA.



The purpose of this study was the assessment of the efficacy of thoracoscopic cervicodorsal and open lumbar sympathectomy for the reduction of pain severity and disability associated with reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD).


From 1992 to 2000, 73 patients with RSD underwent 46 video-assisted thoracoscopic (first to fourth thoracic ganglion) or 37 surgical lumbar (first to fourth lumbar ganglion) sympathetic chain resections. The patients were referred from multidisciplinary pain clinics with documented sympathetically maintained pain syndrome on the basis of reproducible more than 50% reduction in pain severity score (0, no pain; 10, most severe pain imaginable) for more than 2 days after sympathetic block therapy. The mean duration of the RSD symptoms before sympathectomy was 26 plus minus 14 months (range, 6 to 100 months). Postoperative pain severity score, limb disability, and overall patient satisfaction were assessed by an independent third-party observer at a mean follow-up period of 30 months.


No operative mortality or serious morbidity (Horner's syndrome, bleeding that needed transfusion, wound infection) occurred. Transient (<3-month) postprocedural sympathalgia developed in one third of the patients for cervicodorsal sympathectomy and 20% of the patients for lumbar sympathectomy and was treated effectively with trigger point/proximal ganglion block therapy or transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation. At 3 months after sympathectomy, 10% of the patients had conditions that were judged treatment failures with no reduction in pain severity or limb disability. The remaining patients testified to more than 50% pain reduction, with pain severity scores decreasing from a mean of 8.7 before surgery to 3.4 after sympathectomy. At 1 year, one quarter of the patients had continued significant pain relief (pain severity score, <3) and an additional 50% of the patients indicated continued but reduced pain severity and an increase in daily/work activities. Overall, patient satisfaction (willingness to have procedure again, benefit from sympathectomy) was 77% and was not significantly influenced by patient age, RSD duration/stage, or extremity involvement (lumbar, 84%; cervicodorsal, 72%).


Patients with RSD with a confirmed sympathetically maintained pain syndrome can realize long-term benefit from surgical sympathectomy. Procedural efficacy was similar for both upper limb and lower limb RSD syndromes, although the level of pain reduction did deteriorate with time. After sympathectomy, the patients with RSD had a low incidence rate (7%) of "new" complex regional pain or disabling compensatory sweating syndromes.

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