Troubling New Study Reveals High Rates Of Undiagnosed Nerve Damage

Neuropathy, a condition that causes pain, numbness, and tingling in the hands and feet, is far more common than previously thought, according to a recent study published in the journal Neurology. The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan, found that nearly three-quarters of participants had neuropathy, with a staggering 75 percent of those cases previously undiagnosed.

Neuropathy is a type of nerve damage that can lead to serious complications, including falls, infections, and even amputations. It is often associated with diabetes, but can also be caused by other factors such as metabolic syndrome, a cluster of conditions including excess belly fat, high blood pressure, and abnormal cholesterol levels.

“More than one-third of people with neuropathy experience sharp, prickling or shock-like pain, which increases their rates of depression and decreases quality of life,” says study author Dr. Melissa A. Elafros, of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and a member of the American Academy of Neurology. “People with neuropathy also have an increased risk of earlier death, even when you take into account other conditions they have, so identifying and treating people with or at risk for neuropathy is essential.”

The study involved 169 people from an outpatient clinic in Flint, Michigan, with an average age of 58 years. The majority of participants (69%) were Black, and half had diabetes. Researchers tested all participants for distal symmetric polyneuropathy, the most common form of neuropathy, and collected information about other health conditions.

The results were striking: 73 percent of participants had neuropathy, and of those, 75 percent had not been previously diagnosed. Nearly 60 percent of those with neuropathy were experiencing pain. The study also found a strong link between metabolic syndrome and neuropathy. After adjusting for other risk factors, people with metabolic syndrome were more than four times more likely to have neuropathy than those without the syndrome.

The study did not find a relationship between low income and neuropathy. However, it did reveal a surprising trend related to race: Black participants had a lower risk of neuropathy compared to other racial groups. This finding warrants further investigation, as few studies have explored the relationship between race and neuropathy.

“The amount of people with neuropathy in this study, particularly undiagnosed neuropathy, was extraordinarily high with almost three fourths of the study population,” notes Dr. Elafros said. “This highlights the urgent need for interventions that improve diagnosis and management of this condition, as well as the need for managing risk factors that can lead to this condition.”

While the study provides valuable insights into the prevalence of neuropathy, it does have some limitations. It did not follow participants over an extended period to see who developed neuropathy. It also did not explore the reasons why some people were unable to manage risk factors that contribute to the development of neuropathy.

Despite these limitations, the findings underscore the importance of increased awareness, early detection, and proper management of neuropathy. For individuals experiencing symptoms such as pain, numbness, or tingling in the hands and feet, it is crucial to speak with a health care provider. Early intervention can help prevent the progression of nerve damage and reduce the risk of serious complications.

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