Acute and remitting painful diabetic polyneuropathy: a comparison of peripheral nerve fibre pathology

Pain. 1992 Mar;48(3):361-370. doi: 10.1016/0304-3959(92)90085-P.


The cause of the neuropathic pain that is experienced by some patients with diabetic neuropathy remains to be established. Early neuropathological reports, based on comparisons between diabetic patients and non-diabetic control subjects, emphasised associations between pathological changes in specific classes of peripheral nerve fibre and the presence of pain. By making comparisons with more appropriate control subjects, namely diabetic patients without neuropathic pain, more recent studies have found that there are few clear morphological correlates for this type of pain. To investigate this further, we have conducted a detailed morphometric study of sural nerve biopsies from six diabetic patients, four with active acute painful neuropathy and two with recent remission from the same condition. Normal values for the neuropathological parameters were obtained from six non-diabetic control subjects. Teased fibre analysis showed that similar axonal and Schwann cell abnormalities were present in both groups of diabetic patients. Electron microscopical studies revealed that evidence of both myelinated and unmyelinated fibre degeneration and regeneration was also present in the nerves of all diabetic patients, irrespective of whether they had pain. Within the constraints of interpreting results from small numbers of patients, our observations suggested that remission from pain might be associated with a less abnormal axon/Schwann cell calibre ratio, more successful myelinated fibre regeneration and less active unmyelinated fibre regeneration. However, the inescapable finding of this study was, in fact, the similarity in the nerve fibre pathology in diabetic patients with active and remitting painful neuropathy. We conclude that the occurrence of nerve fibre degeneration and regeneration is in itself unlikely to be sufficient to account fully for diabetic neuropathic pain. However, it is conceivable that events occurring during certain stages in the pathological cycle of degeneration and regeneration create the necessary circumstances which lead to pain.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acute Disease
  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Autonomic Nervous System / physiology
  • Diabetic Neuropathies / pathology*
  • Diabetic Neuropathies / physiopathology
  • Electrophysiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Myelin Sheath / physiology
  • Nerve Fibers / pathology*
  • Nerve Regeneration
  • Pain / pathology*
  • Pain / physiopathology
  • Peripheral Nerves / pathology*
  • Sural Nerve / pathology