Background: Revision of the guidelines on the use of skin biopsy in the diagnosis of peripheral neuropathy, published in 2005, has become appropriate owing to publication of more relevant articles. Most of the new studies focused on small fiber neuropathy (SFN), a subtype of neuropathy for which the diagnosis was first developed through skin biopsy examination. This revision focuses on the use of this technique to diagnose SFN.
Methods: Task force members searched the Medline database from 2005, the year of the publication of the first EFNS guideline, to June 30th, 2009. All pertinent articles were rated according to the EFNS and PNS guidance. After a consensus meeting, the task force members created a manuscript that was subsequently revised by two experts (JML and JVS) in the field of peripheral neuropathy and clinical neurophysiology, who were not previously involved in the use of skin biopsy.
Results and conclusions: Distal leg skin biopsy with quantification of the linear density of intraepidermal nerve fibers (IENF), using generally agreed upon counting rules, is a reliable and efficient technique to assess the diagnosis of SFN (Recommendation Level A). Normative reference values are available for bright-field immunohistochemistry (Recommendation Level A) but not yet for confocal immunofluorescence or the blister technique. The morphometric analysis of IENF density, either performed with bright-field or immunofluorescence microscopy, should always refer to normative values matched for age (Recommendation Level A). Newly established laboratories should undergo adequate training in a well-established skin biopsy laboratory and provide their own stratified for age and gender normative values, intra- and interobserver reliability, and interlaboratory agreement. Quality control of the procedure at all levels is mandatory (Good Practice Point). Procedures to quantify subepidermal nerve fibers and autonomic innervated structures, including erector pili muscles, and skin vessels, are under development but need to be confirmed by further studies. Sweat gland innervation can be examined using an unbiased stereologic technique recently proposed (Recommendation Level B). A reduced IENF density is associated with the risk of developing neuropathic pain (Recommendation Level B), but it does not correlate with its intensity. Serial skin biopsies might be useful for detecting early changes of IENF density, which predict the progression of neuropathy, and to assess degeneration and regeneration of IENF (Recommendation Level C). However, further studies are warranted to confirm its potential usefulness as an outcome measure in clinical practice and research. Skin biopsy has not so far been useful for identifying the etiology of SFN. Finally, we emphasize that 3-mm skin biopsy at the ankle is a safe procedure based on the experience of 10 laboratories reporting absence of serious side effects in approximately 35,000 biopsies and a mere 0.19% incidence of non-serious side effects in about 15 years of practice (Good Practice Point).