Problems with feet, joints, legs and ankles.

A woman experiencing joint pain (© astrosystem - stock.adobe.com)

MINNEAPOLIS – Do you often deal with that painful “pins and needles” feeling in your hands or feet? It could be a sign of neuropathy, which scientists say is surprisingly more common than they previously believed. In fact, a new study discovered that three in four people examined tested positive for a case of neuropathy.

For patients dealing with neuropathy, researchers from the University of Michigan explain that they’re basically experiencing nerve damage that’s causing pain and numbness in the extremities. While this may not sound particularly serious, study authors warn that neuropathy can lead to falls, infections, and even amputations in severe cases.

The new research, published in the journal Neurology, found that neuropathy is both very common and also going undiagnosed in many cases. Moreover, patients with this nerve damage condition may not experience this prickly feeling in their hands or feet — making a diagnosis even tougher.

“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 Melissa A. Elafros, MD, PhD, of the University of Michigan and a member of the American Academy of Neurology, in a media release. “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.”

Elafros and the team examined 169 people from an outpatient internal medicine clinic in Michigan during this study. These patients had an average age of 58, and two-thirds were Black. Half of the study group also had diabetes, which researchers note can cause neuropathy.

Two in three participants dealt with metabolic syndrome, which means they had excess belly fat as well as two or more of the following conditions:

  • High blood pressure
  • Higher than normal triglycerides (a type of fat in the blood)
  • High blood sugar
  • Low high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, or “good” cholesterol

Elafros notes that all of these metabolic syndrome risk factors also contribute to the onset of neuropathy.

After testing each individual for a form of neuropathy called distal symmetric polyneuropathy, researchers found that a staggering 73 percent had some degree of nerve damage. Concerningly, three in four patients testing positive for neuropathy had never been diagnosed with this condition in the past. However, 60 percent admit they had been experiencing pain associated with neuropathy.

Delving deeper into the findings, researchers found that 74 percent of the patients with neuropathy had metabolic syndrome. Among those who did not have this syndrome, only 54 percent had a case of neuropathy. After taking various factors into account, the study authors say someone with metabolic syndrome is four times more likely to develop this type of nerve damage.

In terms of the patients’ backgrounds, factors like a person’s income did not appear to affect their chances of suffering from neuropathy. However, race may play a role. Black people were less likely to deal with neuropathy, as only 60 percent of neuropathy patients were Black, compared to 91 percent of those who did not have the condition.

“The amount of people with neuropathy in this study, particularly undiagnosed neuropathy, was extraordinarily high with almost three fourths of the study population,” Elafros concludes. “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.”

Researchers note that the study received support from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases and National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences.

About Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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