Clinical utilization and complications of sural nerve biopsy

Am J Surg. 1993 Sep;166(3):252-6. doi: 10.1016/s0002-9610(05)80968-7.


Surgeons frequently perform sural nerve biopsy as part of the work-up of patients with peripheral neuropathy. The indications for the procedure, therapeutic value, and complications associated with the procedure have received little attention in the surgical literature. A retrospective chart review of 60 patients with the suspected diagnosis of peripheral neuropathy undergoing sural nerve biopsy was performed. Vasculitis was suspected in 29 (48%) patients undergoing biopsy. This diagnosis was confirmed in 6 of the 29 patients and resulted in the alteration of therapy in 31% of patients with this suspected diagnosis. In 27 (45%) patients, the etiology of their peripheral neuropathy was unknown. Twelve (44%) patients in this group had sural nerve pathology; however, no change in therapy was required. Ten patients in our series had associated malignant tumors; some of these patients were diagnosed after referral for sural nerve biopsy. Twenty-five (42%) patients remained undiagnosed after biopsy. Nerve conduction studies were performed in 14 (22%) patients. Thirteen patients with abnormal lower extremity nerve conduction studies had 6 normal and 7 abnormal biopsy results. The one patient with a normal study had a normal nerve biopsy result. There were six (10%) patients with wound infections, seven (12%) patients with delayed wound healing, and three (5%) patients with new onset of chronic pain in the distribution of the sural nerve, for an overall complication rate of 27%. There was no correlation between the preoperative use of antibiotics, type of local anesthetic used, or length of nerve excised and complication rate. We conclude that the complication rate after sural nerve biopsy is significant. Strict criteria should be employed in selecting patients for sural nerve biopsy including a careful neurologic history and physical examination, nerve conduction studies, appropriate work-up for vasculitis if suspected, and implementation of a search for malignancy if this is not apparent. If the diagnosis is still in question, then sural nerve biopsy would seem appropriate, especially in patients with suspected vasculitis.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Biopsy / adverse effects
  • Biopsy / statistics & numerical data
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neural Conduction
  • Peripheral Nervous System Diseases / pathology*
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Sural Nerve / pathology*
  • Vasculitis / drug therapy
  • Vasculitis / pathology