Small fiber neuropathy: A burning problem

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Small fiber neuropathy has been associated with many medical conditions, including glucose dysmetabolism,3 connective tissue disease,4,5 dysthyroidism,6 vitamin B12 deficiency, paraproteinemia, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection,7 hepatitis C virus infection, celiac disease,8 restless legs syndrome,9 neurotoxic drug exposure, hereditary diseases, and paraneoplastic syndrome. While most of these conditions cause a length-dependent small fiber neuropathy, others (Sjögren disease, celiac disease, and paraneoplastic syndrome) can cause a form of small fiber neuropathy that is not length-dependent.4,8,10

Diabetes and prediabetes

Glucose dysmetabolism, including diabetes and prediabetes with impaired oral glucose tolerance (a glucose level 140–199 mg/dL 2 hours after a 75-g oral dextrose load), is the most common identifiable associated condition, present in about one-third of patients with painful sensory neuropathy11 and in nearly half of those with otherwise idiopathic small fiber neuropathy.12–14

Research findings strongly suggest that even prediabetes is a risk factor for small fiber neuropathy, and that so-called “impaired glucose tolerance neuropathy” may represent the earliest stage of diabetic neuropathy. Several recent studies have found a high prevalence of impaired glucose tolerance in patients with sensory peripheral neuropathy,12–14 with a rate of up to 42% in cases initially thought to be idiopathic14 compared with 14% in the general population.15 Also, a dose-response relationship between the severity of hyperglycemia and the degree of neuropathy was demonstrated in one study, in which patients with impaired glucose tolerance more often had small fiber neuropathy, whereas those with diabetes more often had polyneuropathy involving both small and large fibers.14 And studies in animals and cell cultures have shown that intermittent hyperglycemia, which can be seen in patients with impaired glucose tolerance, caused sensory neuron and nerve fiber damage and increased spontaneous C-fiber firing, resulting in neuropathic pain.8,16,17

Metabolic syndrome

Insulin resistance with prediabetes and diabetes is a part of the metabolic syndrome, which also consists of hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and obesity. The individual components of the metabolic syndrome have been implicated as risk factors not only for cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease but also for small fiber neuropathy.

One study in 548 patients with type 2 diabetes showed that those with the metabolic syndrome were twice as likely to have neuropathy as those without.18 Another study showed that in 1,200 patients with type 1 diabetes without neuropathy at baseline, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and increased body mass index were each independently associated with a higher risk of developing neuropathy.19

A recent study of 219 patients with idiopathic distal symmetrical peripheral neuropathy and 175 diabetic patients without neuropathy found a higher prevalence of metabolic syndrome in patients with neuropathy than in normal populations. The prevalence of dyslipidemia (high levels of total and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol and triglycerides and low levels of high-density lipoprotein cholesterol), but not hypertension or obesity, was higher in patients with neuropathy than in patients with diabetes but no neuropathy.20 The findings linked dyslipidemia to neuropathy and showed the need for further studies of the potential pathogenic role of dyslipidemia in neuropathy.

Hereditary causes

Hereditary causes of small fiber neuropathy are rare and include Fabry disease, Tangier disease, hereditary sensory autonomic neuropathy, and hereditary amyloidosis.


A thorough history should be taken to obtain details regarding onset and features of neuropathy symptoms, exacerbating factors, and progression. It is also important to ascertain whether the patient has any associated conditions as mentioned above, a family history of neuropathy, risk factors for HIV or hepatitis C virus infection, or a history of neurotoxic drug exposure.

Clinical suspicion of small fiber neuropathy should be high if a patient presents with predominant small fiber symptoms and signs with preserved large fiber functions.

Nerve conduction studies and electromyography

For diagnostic testing, routine nerve conduction studies and electromyography assess the function of large nerve fibers only and are thus normal in small fiber neuropathy. These tests should still be ordered to rule out subclinical involvement of large fibers, which may affect the diagnostic evaluation, prognosis, and treatment plan. However, if the results of these tests are normal, specialized studies are needed to evaluate small fibers.

Although several tests are available to evaluate somatic and autonomic small fibers, the two that have the highest diagnostic efficiency for small fiber neuropathy and that are used most often are skin biopsy, to evaluate intraepidermal nerve fiber density, and quantitative sudomotor axon reflex testing (QSART), to assess sudomotor autonomic function.21–23

Skin biopsy

Skin biopsy is a minimally invasive procedure in which 3-mm-diameter punch biopsy specimens are taken from the distal leg, distal thigh, and proximal thigh of one lower limb. The procedure takes only 10 to 15 minutes.

Biopsy specimens are immunostained using an antibody against protein gene product 9.5, which is a panaxonal marker. Small nerve fibers in the epidermis are counted under a microscope, and intraepithelial nerve fiber densities are calculated and compared with established normative values. The diagnosis of small fiber neuropathy can be established if the intraepidermal nerve fiber density is lower than normal (Figure 1). Nerve fiber density may be normal in the early stage of small fiber neuropathy, but in this setting skin biopsy often shows abnormal morphologic changes in the small fibers, especially large swellings,24 and repeat biopsy in 6 to 12 months may be considered.

The diagnostic efficiency of skin biopsy is about 88%.21,23 For diagnosing small fiber neuropathy, it is more sensitive than quantitative sensory testing21,25 and more sensitive and less invasive than sural nerve biopsy.26 Intraepidermal nerve fiber density also correlates well with a variety of measures of severity of HIV distal sensory neuropathy and thus may be used to measure the severity and treatment response of small fiber neuropathy.27

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