SSR 03- 2p
POLICY INTERPRETATION RULING TITLES II AND XVI: EVALUATING CASES INVOLVING
REFLEX SYMPATHETIC DYSTROPHY SYNDROME/COMPLEX REGIONAL PAIN SYNDROME
Purpose: To explain the policies of the Social Security Administration for developing and evaluating
title II and title XVI claims for disability on the basis of Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy
Syndrome (RSDS), also frequently known as Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, Type I (CRPS).
These terms are synonymous and are used to describe a unique clinical syndrome that
may develop following trauma and is characterized by complaints of severe pain and
typically includes signs of autonomic dysfunction.
(Authority): Sections 216(i), 223(d), 1614(a)(3) and 1614(a)(4) of the Social Security Act, as
amended; Regulations No. 4, subpart P, sections 404.1505, 404.1508 - 404.1513, 404.1520,
404.1520a, 404.1521, 404.1523, 404.1526 - 404.1529, 404.1560 - 404.1569a; and 404.1593
- 404.1594 and Regulations No. 16, subpart I, sections 416.905, 416.906, 416.908 -
416.913, 416.920, 416.920a, 416.921, 416.923, 416.924, 416.924a - 416.924c, 416.926,
416.926a, 416.927 - 416.929, 416.960 -416.969a, 416.987, and 416.993 - 416.994a.
Introduction: RSDS/CRPS are terms used to describe a constellation of symptoms and signs that may
occur following an injury to bone or soft tissue. The precipitating injury may be
so minor that the individual does not even recall sustaining an injury. Other potential
precipitants suggested by the medical literature include surgical procedures, drug
exposure, stroke with hemiplegia, and cervical spondylosis.
Definition of RSDS/CRPS
RSDS/CRPS is a chronic pain syndrome most often resulting from trauma to a single
extremity. It can also result from diseases, surgery, or injury affecting other parts
of the body. Even a minor injury can trigger RSDS/CRPS. The most common acute clinical
manifestations include complaints of intense pain and findings indicative of autonomic
dysfunction at the site of the precipitating trauma. Later, spontaneously occurring
pain may be associated with abnormalities in skin, subcutaneous tissue, and bone.
It is characteristic of this syndrome that the degree of pain reported is out of proportion
to the severity of the injury sustained by the individual. When left untreated, the
signs and symptoms of the disorder may worsen over time.
Although the pathogenesis of this disorder (the precipitating mechanism(s) of the
signs and symptoms characteristic of RSDS/CRPS) has not been defined, dysfunction
of the sympathetic nervous system has been strongly implicated.
The sympathetic nervous system regulates the body's involuntary physiological responses
to stressful stimuli. Sympathetic stimulation results in physiological changes that
prepare the body to respond to a stressful stimulus by “fight or flight.” The so-called
“fight or flight” response is characterized by constriction of peripheral vasculature
(blood vessels supplying skin, muscle and bone), increase in heart rate and sweating,
dilatation of bronchial tubes, dilatation of pupils, increase in level of alertness,
and constriction of sphincter musculature.
Abnormal sympathetic nervous system function may produce inappropriate or exaggerated
neural signals that may be misinterpreted as pain. In addition, abnormal sympathethic
stimulation may produce changes in blood vessels, skin, musculature and bone. Early
recognition of the syndrome and prompt treatment, ideally within 3 months of the first
symptoms, provides the greatest opportunity for effective recovery.
Typical Presentation of RSDS/CRPS
RSDS/CRPS patients typically report persistent, burning, aching or searing pain that
is initially localized to the site of the injury. The involved area usually has increased
sensitivity to touch. The degree of reported pain is often out of proportion to the
severity of the precipitating injury. Without appropriate treatment, the pain and
associated atrophic skin and bone changes may spread to involve an entire limb. Cases
have been reported to progress and spread to other limbs, or to remote parts of the
Clinical studies have demonstrated that when treatment is delayed, the signs and symptoms
may progress and spread, resulting in long-term and even permanent physical and psychological
problems. Some investigators have found that the signs and symptoms of RSDS/CRPS persist
longer than 6 months in 50 percent of cases, and may last for years in cases where
treatment is not successful.
A diagnosis of RSDS/CRPS requires the presence of complaints of persistent, severe
pain that results in impaired mobility of the affected region. Pain is associated
with one or more of the following signs in the affected region:
Autonomic instability--seen as changes in skin color or texture, changes in sweating
(decreased or excessive sweating), skin temperature changes, or abnormal pilomotor
Abnormal hair or nail growth (growth can be either too slow or too fast);
Progression of the clinical disorder is marked by worsening of a previously identified
finding, or the manifestation of additional abnormal changes in the skin, nails, muscles,
joints, ligaments, and bones of the affected region. Clinical progression does not
necessarily correlate with specific timeframes. Efficacy of treatment must be judged
on the basis of the treatment's effect on the pain and whether or not progressive
changes continue in the tissues of the affected region.
Reported pain at the site of the injury may be followed by complaints of muscle pain,
joint stiffness, restricted mobility, or abnormal hair and nail growth in the affected
region. Further, signs of autonomic instability (changes in the color or temperature
of the skin and frequent appearance of goose bumps) may develop in the affected extremity
or region. Osteoporosis may be noted by imaging techniques. Pain can further intensify,
spread to involve other extremities, and muscle atrophy and contractures can develop.
Persistent clinical progression resulting in muscle atrophy and contractures, or progression
of pain to include other extremities or regions, in spite of appropriate diagnosis
and treatment, hallmark a poor prognosis.
Treatment for RSDS/CRPS
Patient education and activity programs designed to increase limb mobility and promote
use of the extremity during activities of daily living are considered the most important
treatments for RSDS/CRPS. The medical literature has demonstrated that individuals
with extremities affected by RSDS/CRPS have a better prognosis when they receive an
early diagnosis and mobility is immediately encouraged. In some patients, it is necessary
to inject a long-acting anesthetic to block sympathetic activity and reduce pain to
allow the individual to increase the mobility of the affected region. Various analgesics,
including narcotics and neurostimulators, may be used to minimize pain and promote
the individual's ability to tolerate greater mobility.
A mental evaluation may be requested by treating sources to determine if any undiagnosed
psychiatric disease is present that could potentially contribute to a reduced pain
tolerance. It is important to recognize that such evaluations are not based on concern
that RSDS/CRPS findings are imaginary or etiologically linked to psychiatric disease.
The behavioral and cognitive effects of the medications used to treat pain need to
be thoroughly considered in the evaluation of this syndrome.
Other types of medications may also be used to reduce pain. Anti-inflammatory preparations,
psychotropic medications (for example, antidepressants), certain antiepileptic drugs,
muscle relaxants, and drugs that produce generalized reduction in sympathetic outflow
may be tried in an effort to reduce the signs and symptoms associated with RSDS/CRPS
and improve the mobility of the affected extremity or region.
Patients who are noted to have a good response to local sympathetic blocks may be
considered candidates for surgical sympathectomy. This procedure permanently disrupts
the sympathetic innervation of the affected area. It involves destroying a sympathetic
ganglion and must be performed by a physician who is an expert in this technique.
This procedure is not without risk of post-surgical complications.
This Ruling explains that RSDS/CRPS, when documented by appropriate medical signs,
symptoms, and laboratory findings, is a medically determinable impairment that can
last for 12 or more months and be the basis for a finding of “disability.” It also
provides guidance for the development and evaluation of claims for disability on the
basis of RSDS/CRPS.
RSDS/CRPS constitutes a medically determinable impairment when it is documented by
appropriate medical signs, symptoms, and laboratory findings, as discussed above.
RSDS/CRPS may be the basis for a finding of “disability.” Disability may not be established
on the basis of an individual’s statement of symptoms alone.
1. Requirement for a Medically Determinable Impairment
Sections 216(i) and 1614(a)(3) of the Social Security Act (the Act) define “disability” as the inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity (SGA) by reason of
any medically determinable physical or mental impairment (or combination of impairments)
that can be expected to result in death or that has lasted or can be expected to last
for a continuous period of not less than 12 months. Sections 223(d)(3) and 1614(a)(3)(D) of the Act, and 20 CFR 404.1508 and 416.908,
require that impairment result from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities
that can be shown by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.
The Act and regulations further require that impairment be established by medical
evidence that consists of signs, symptoms, and laboratory findings, and not only by
an individual's statement of symptoms.
2. Establishing the Existence of a Medically Determinable Impairment
For purposes of Social Security disability evaluation, RSDS/CRPS can be established
in the presence of persistent complaints of pain that are often out of proportion
to the severity of any documented precipitant and one or more of the following clinically
documented signs in the affected area:
Autonomic instability--seen as changes in skin color or texture, changes in sweating,
changes in skin temperature, and abnormal pilomotor erection (gooseflesh);
Abnormal hair or nail growth;
When longitudinal treatment records document persistent limiting pain in an area where
one or more of these abnormal physical findings have been described at some point
in time following the precipitating injury, disability adjudicators can reliably determine
that RSDS/CRPS is present and constitutes a medically determinable impairment. It
may be noted in the treatment records that these signs are not present continuously,
or the signs may be present at one examination and not appear at another. Transient
findings are characteristic of RSDS/CRPS, and do not influence a finding that a medically
determinable impairment is present.
3. Documenting Medical Evidence of the Impairment
In cases involving RSDS/CRPS, the documentation of medical signs or laboratory findings
at some point in time in the clinical record is critical in establishing the presence
of a medically determinable impairment. In cases in which RSDS/CRPS is alleged, longitudinal
clinical records reflecting ongoing medical evaluation and treatment from the individual's
medical sources, especially treating sources, are extremely helpful in documenting
the presence of any medical signs, symptoms and laboratory findings. When the limitations
and restrictions imposed by RSDS/CRPS are material to the outcome of claims adjudication,
every reasonable effort should be made to secure all relevant available evidence to
ensure appropriate and thorough evaluation.
Generally, evidence for the 12-month period preceding the month of application should
be obtained, unless there is reason to believe that development of an earlier period
is necessary, the alleged onset of disability is less than 12 months before the date
of the application, or a fully favorable determination can be made with less evidence.
If the adjudicator finds that the evidence is inadequate to determine whether the
individual is disabled, he or she must first recontact the individual’s treating or
other medical source(s) to determine whether the additional information needed is
readily available, in accordance with 20 CFR 404.1512 and 416.912. Only after the
adjudicator determines that the information is not readily available from the individual’s
health care provider(s), or that the necessary information or clarification cannot
be sought from the individual’s health care provider(s), should the adjudicator proceed
to arrange for a consultative examination(s) in accordance with 20 CFR 404.1519a and
416.919a. The type of consultative examination(s) purchased will depend on the nature
of the individual’s symptoms and the extent of the evidence already in the case record.
It should be noted that conflicting evidence in the medical record is not unusual
in cases of RSDS due to the transitory nature of its objective findings and the complicated
diagnostic process involved. Clarification of any such conflicts in the medical evidence
should be sought first from the individual’s treating or other medical sources.
Medical opinions from treating sources about the nature and severity of an individual's
impairment(s) are entitled to deference and may be entitled to controlling weight.
If we find that a treating source's medical opinion on the issue of the nature and
severity of an individual's impairment(s) is well-supported by medically acceptable
clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other
substantial evidence in the case record, the adjudicator will give it controlling
weight. (See SSR 96-2p, “Titles II and XVI: Giving Controlling Weight to Treating
Source Medical Opinions,” and SSR 96-5p, “Titles II and XVI: Medical Source Opinions
on Issues Reserved to the Commissioner.”)
4. Duration and Impairment Severity
The signs and symptoms of RSDS/CRPS may remain stable over time, improve, or worsen.
Documentation should, whenever appropriate, include a longitudinal clinical record
containing detailed medical observations, treatment, the individual's response to
treatment, complications of treatment, and a detailed description of how the impairment
limits the individual's ability to function and perform or sustain work activity over
Chronic pain and many of the medications prescribed to treat it may affect an individual's
ability to maintain attention and concentration, as well as adversely affect his or
her cognition, mood, and behavior, and may even reduce motor reaction times. These
factors can interfere with an individual’s ability to sustain work activity over time,
or preclude sustained work activity altogether. When evaluating duration and severity,
as well as when evaluating RFC, the effects of chronic pain and the use of pain medications
must be carefully considered.
When the alleged onset of disability secondary to RSDS/CRPS occurred less than 12
months before adjudication, the adjudicator must evaluate the available medical evidence
and project the degree of impairment severity that is likely to exist at the end of
12 months. Information about treatment and response to treatment, as well as any medical source
opinions about the individual's prognosis at the end of 12 months, are helpful in
deciding whether the medically determinable impairment is expected to be of disabling
severity for at least 12 consecutive months.
In those cases in which an individual is found disabled based on RSDS/CRPS, but medical
improvement is anticipated, the adjudicator should schedule an appropriate medical
reexamination date consistent with the information indicating the likelihood of medical
5. Evaluation of the Claim
Claims in which the individual alleges RSDS/CRPS are adjudicated using the sequential
evaluation process, just as for any other impairment. Because finding that RSDS/CRPS
is a medically determinable impairment requires the presence of chronic pain and at
least one documented objective physical sign, the adjudicator can reliably find that
pain is an expected symptom in this disorder. Other symptoms, including such things
as extreme sensitivity to touch or pressure, or abnormal sensations of heat or cold,
can also be associated with this disorder. Given that a variety of symptoms can be
associated with RSDS/CRPS, and that it has been established as a medically determinable
impairment, the adjudicator must evaluate the intensity, persistence, and limiting
effects of the individual's symptoms to determine the extent to which the symptoms
limit the individual's ability to do basic work activities. For this purpose, whenever
the individual's statements about the intensity, persistence, or functionally limiting
effects of pain or other symptoms are not substantiated by objective medical evidence,
the adjudicator must make a finding on the credibility of the individual's statements
based on a consideration of the entire case record. This includes the medical signs
and laboratory findings, the individual's own statements about the symptoms, any statements
and other information provided by treating or examining physicians or psychologists
and other persons about the symptoms and how they affect the individual, and any other
relevant evidence in the case record.
Although symptoms alone cannot be the basis for finding a medically determinable impairment,
an individual's symptoms and the effect(s) of those symptoms on the individual's ability
to function must be considered both in determining impairment severity and in assessing
the individual's residual functional capacity (RFC). If pain or other symptoms are
found to cause a limitation or restriction having more than a minimal effect on an
individual's ability to perform basic work activities, a “severe” impairment must
be found to exist. See SSR 96-3p, “Titles II and XVI: Considering Allegations of Pain
and Other Symptoms in Determining Whether a Medically Determinable Impairment is Severe”
and SSR 96-7p, “Titles II and XVI: Evaluation of Symptoms in Disability Claims: Assessing
the Credibility of an Individual's Statements.”
Proceeding with the sequential evaluation process, when an individual is found to
have a severe impairment, the adjudicator must next consider whether the individual's
impairment is of the severity contemplated by the Listing of Impairments contained
in appendix 1, subpart P of 20 CFR part 404. Since RSDS/CRPS is not a listed impairment,
an individual with RSDS/CRPS alone cannot be found to have an impairment that meets
the requirements of a listed impairment; however, the specific findings in each case
should be compared to any pertinent listing to determine whether medical equivalence
may exist. Psychological manifestations related to RSDS/CRPS should be evaluated under the mental
listings and consideration should be given as to whether the individual’s impairment(s)
meets or equals the severity of a mental listing.
For those cases in which the individual's impairment(s) does not meet or equal the
severity of a listing, an assessment of RFC must be made, and adjudication must proceed
to the fourth and, if necessary, the fifth step of the sequential evaluation process.
Again, in determining RFC, all of the individual's symptoms must be considered in
deciding how such symptoms may affect functional capacities. Careful consideration
must be given to the effects of pain and its treatment on an individual’s capacity
to do sustained work-related physical and mental activities in a work setting on a
regular and continuing basis. See SSR 96-7p, “Titles II and XVI: Evaluation of Symptoms
in Disability Claims: Assessing the Credibility of an Individual's Statements” and
SSR 96-8p, “Titles II and XVI: Assessing Residual Functional Capacity in Initial Claims.”
In evaluating credibility, the adjudicator should ask the treating or other medical
source(s) to provide information about the extent and duration of an individual's
impairment(s), including observations and opinions about how well the individual is
able to function; the effects of any treatment, including side effects; and how long
the impairment(s) is expected to limit the individual's ability to function.
Opinions from an individual's medical sources, especially treating sources, concerning
the effect(s) of RSDS/CRPS on the individual's ability to function in a sustained
manner in performing work activities, or in performing activities of daily living,
are important in enabling adjudicators to draw conclusions about the severity of the
impairment(s) and the individual's RFC. In this regard, any information a medical
source is able to provide contrasting the individual's medical condition(s) and functional
capacities since the alleged onset of RSDS/CRPS with the individual's status prior
to the onset of RSDS/CRPS is helpful to the adjudicator in evaluating the individual's
impairment(s) and the resulting functional consequences.
In cases involving RSDS/CRPS, third-party information, including evidence from medical
practitioners who have provided services to the individual, and who may or may not
be “acceptable medical sources,” is often critical in deciding the individual's credibility.
Information other than an individual's allegations and reports from the individual's
treating sources helps to assess an individual's ability to function on a day-to-day
basis and helps to depict the individual's capacities over a period of time, thus
serving to establish a longitudinal picture of the individual's status. Such evidence
includes, but is not limited to:
· Information from neighbors, friends, relatives, or clergy;
· Statements from such individuals as past employers, rehabilitation counselors, or
teachers about the individual's impairment(s) and the effects of the impairment(s)
on the individual's functioning in the work place, rehabilitation facility, or educational
· Statements from other practitioners with knowledge of the individual, e.g., nurse-practitioners,
physicians' assistants, naturopaths, therapists, social workers, and chiropractors;
· Statements from other sources with knowledge of the individual's ability to function
in daily activities; and
· The individual's own record (such as a diary, journal, or notes) of his or her own
impairment(s) and its impact on function over time.
In accordance with SSR 96-7p, when additional information is needed to assess the
credibility of the individual’s statements about symptoms and their effects, the adjudicator
must make every reasonable effort to obtain additional information that could shed
light on the credibility of the individual’s statements.
If the adjudicator determines that the individual's impairment(s) precludes the performance
of past relevant work (or if there was no past relevant work), a finding must be made
about the individual's ability to perform other work. The usual vocational considerations
(see 20 CFR 404.1560-404.1569a and 416.960-416.969a) must be followed in determining
the individual's ability to perform other work. See also SSR 96-8p, “Titles II and
XVI: Assessing Residual Functional Capacity in Initial Claims.”
Many individuals with RSDS/CRPS are “younger individuals” ages 18 through 49 (see
20 CFR 404.1563 and 416.963). Age, education, and work experience are not usually
considered to limit significantly the ability of individuals under age 50 to make
an adjustment to other work, including unskilled sedentary work. However, a finding of “disabled” is not precluded for those individuals under age
50 who do not meet all of the criteria of a specific rule and who do not have the
ability to perform a full range of sedentary work. The conclusion about whether such
individuals are disabled will depend primarily on the nature and extent of their functional
limitations or restrictions. Thus, if it is determined that an individual is able
to do less than the full range of sedentary work, refer to SSR 96-9p, “Titles II and
XVI: Determining Capability to Do Other Work -- Implications of a Residual Functional
Capacity for Less Than a Full Range of Sedentary Work.” As explained in that Ruling,
whether the individual will be able to make an adjustment to other work requires adjudicative
judgment regarding factors such as the type and extent of the individual's limitations
or restrictions and the extent of the erosion of the occupational base for sedentary
Effective Date: This Ruling is effective on the date of its publication in the Federal Register.
Cross-References: SSR 96-2p, “Titles II and XVI: Giving Controlling Weight to Treating Source Medical
Opinions,” SSR 96-3p, “Titles II and XVI: Considering Allegations of Pain and Other
Symptoms in Determining Whether a Medically Determinable Impairment is Severe,” SSR
96-5p, “Titles II and XVI: Medical Source Opinions on Issues Reserved to the Commissioner,”
NOTE: SSR 96-7p, “Titles II and XVI: Evaluation of Symptoms in Disability Claims: Assessing
the Credibility of an Individual's Statements” has been replaced with SSR 16-3p, “Titles
II and XVI: Evaluation of Symptoms in Disability Claims.” Effective 3/28/16, we no
longer use the term “credibility” when evaluating symptoms. SSR 96-8p, “Titles II
and XVI: Assessing Residual Functional Capacity in Initial Claims,” and SSR 96-9p,
“Titles II and XVI: Determining Capability to Do Other Work--Implications of a Residual
Functional Capacity for Less Than a Full Range of Sedentary Work.”