Damage to nociceptor nerve fibres may give rise to peripheral neuropathies, some of which are pain free and some are painful. A hallmark of many peripheral neuropathies is the loss of small nerve fibres in the epidermis, a condition called small-fibre neuropathy (SFN) when it is predominantly the small nerve fibres that are damaged. Historically, SFN has been very difficult to diagnose as clinical examination and nerve conduction studies mainly detect large nerve fibres, and quantitative sensory testing is not sensitive enough to detect small changes in small nerve fibres. However, taking a 3-mm punch skin biopsy from the distal leg and quantification of the nerve fibre density has proven to be a useful method to diagnose SFN. However, the correlation between the nerve fibre loss and other test results varies greatly. Recent studies have shown that it is possible not only to extract information about the nerve fibre density from the biopsies but also to get an estimation of the nerve fibre length density using stereology, quantify sweat gland innervation and detect morphological changes such as axonal swelling, all of which may be additional parameters indicating diseased small fibres relating to symptoms reported by the patients. In this review, we focus on available tests to assess structure and function of the small nerve fibres, and summarize recent advances that have provided new possibilities to more specifically relate structural findings with symptoms and function in patients with SFN.
© 2014 European Pain Federation - EFIC®