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What You Can’t Feel Can Hurt You

Andrew J. M. Boulton Manchester Diabetes Centre, 193 Hathersage Rd, Manchester M13 0JE, England. (E-mail: ABoulton@med.miami.edu)

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Throughout our medical training, we are taught how to manage patients who present with symptoms: perform a clinical examination, make a diagnosis, and develop a management plan. However, virtually no time is spent on teaching us how to manage patients who have no symptoms because they have lost the ability to feel pain, that is, patients with peripheral neuropathy. The lifetime incidence of foot ulceration in people with diabetes has been estimated to be as high as 25%, and a variety of contributory factors result in a foot being at risk for ulceration. Most important among these factors is peripheral neuropathy, or the loss of the ability to feel pain, temperature, or pressure sensation in the feet and lower legs. Up to 50% of older type 2 diabetic patients have evidence of sensory loss, putting them at risk for foot ulceration. If we are to succeed in reducing the high incidence of foot ulcers, regular screening for peripheral neuropathy is vital in all patients with diabetes. Those found to have any risk factors for foot ulceration require special education and more frequent review, particularly by podiatric physicians. The key message is, therefore, that neuropathic symptoms correlate poorly with sensory loss and that their absence must never be equated with lack of risk of foot ulceration. If we are to succeed in reducing the high incidence of foot ulceration and particularly recurrent ulceration, we must realize that with loss of pain there is also diminished motivation in the healing and prevention of injury. (J Am Podiatr Med Assoc 100(5): 349–352, 2010)