Diabetic peripheral neuropathy (DPN) is a fact of life for millions of people with diabetes. The condition is characterized by a number of symptoms, including numbness, insensitivity, tingling, burning and prickly sensations, sharp pain and cramps in hands and feet, and loss of balance and coordination. Perversely, peripheral neuropathy also can include extreme sensitivity to touch, making it so even stepping barefooted on a pebble can cause shooting pain up the legs. Until recently there have been few treatment options, as the condition is not even very well understood.
But now researchers are using electrical stimulation to relieve the pain the condition can cause. If such a treatment method proves successful, it might offer welcome relief and better health outcomes for people with diabetes.
One of the first devices to hit the market is Sensus, by NeuroMetrix. Available by prescription, it relies on external electrical stimulation of nerves and nerve pathways to lessen and control DPN pain in the feet and legs. The device is designed to wrap around the calf under your clothes, and is secured by a Velcro band that adjusts to fit almost any body size. The Sensus “brain” is controlled by a single push button and uses an array of electrodes that snap into place on the skin side of the device to send current into your leg. Sensus stimulates or “excites” the nerves that carry normal, non-painful sensations to the brain.
A growing number of insurers, including Medicare, reimburse for this Class II medical device, which was cleared by the FDA late in 2012 and began shipments to distributors about 6 months ago. It is the only device of its kind cleared for overnight use by patients.
Researchers are rooting for such devices to provide relief for people with diabetes, as neuropathy can curtail exercise routines and disrupt sleep patterns, two side effects which can create a downward health spiral for people with diabetes. The economic consequences of neuropathies in the U.S. run into the billions each year, according to the National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse.