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Shocking: Electrical Charges May Relieve Leg Pain in Diabetics

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WebMD Health News

March 23, 2000 (Washington) -- The painful burning and tingling sensation that many diabetics feel in their legs may be alleviated by a mild electrical shock, but this experimental treatment is being critcized as ineffective by some physicians.

This type of symptom, which results from nerve damage or neuropathy, is a common complication of diabetes, particularly among people who do not have good control over their blood sugar levels. Physicians today treat diabetic neuropathy with a number of drugs that are not approved for the relief of these symptoms, including antidepressants and medications used to stop convulsions, as well as with drugs that are designed to relieve pain.

Some researchers believe that an electrical charge applied to the skin, a process called transcutaneous electric nerve stimulation (TENS), can relieve diabetic pain. TENS is commonly used to treat other muscle or nerve injuries. A new study published in the March issue of the journal Diabetes Care examined the effect of combining TENS with acupuncture needles to which a mild electrical charge had been applied. Each of the 50 people in the study had 10 needles inserted in their legs and feet and received 30-minute charges every week for three weeks. To compare the effect, the researchers also applied needle insertion without the electrical charge for three weeks. All patients were required to have their diabetes under steady control, although the investigators did not monitor the patients for this. Patients were permitted to take typical pain medications as needed.

The study was undertaken by Mohammed A. Hazma, MD, Paul E. White, PhD, MD, and their colleagues in the department of anesthesiology and pain management at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. White is the chairman of the department.

Compared with how they felt at the start of the study, the patients reported levels of pain, physical activity, and quality of sleep that were all improved by the end of the study period for the active needles but not for the period of the needle treatment without the electrical charge. Patients also reported a 49% reduction in daily use of pain medication, compared with a 14% reduction during the nonelectrified needle treatment period. Some patients continued having weekly treatments after the study concluded and indicated that they were "willing to pay extra money" for their treatments. None reported side effects.

"Our other research showed this was effective for low back pain," White tells WebMD from Switzerland, where he is a visiting professor in the department of anesthesia at the University of Geneva. "I think there is a potential benefit to [diabetic] patients, but I think it is part of a comprehensive treatment program. It is not a sole treatment," he says. "They need to be on an exercise program. With this, they are feeling more comfortable and less pain. I am not sure how [long] the effects last ... they will still need other analgesics, but it reduced their dependence on them."

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