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Shocking: Electrical Charges May Relieve Leg Pain in Diabetics

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"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."

The biggest problem in making this therapy more available is the lack of good equipment to generate the electrical charge, White says. White is working with a private firm to develop a device, which would have to be approved by the FDA. A few facilities offer the treatment today and charge $75-125 per treatment, which might be covered by insurance, White says.

However, an endocrinologist and a neurologist who reviewed the study for WebMD both say that it failed to show that the treatment was more effective than placebo.

"Neuropathy is a very bad problem, and anything that could help would be [beneficial]. But the problem is, it is a very short-term study," says George King, MD, director of research at the Joslin Diabetes Center and a professor of medicine at Harvard School of Medicine, both in Boston. "[T]hey can't really do this in a double-blinded fashion [in which the patients don't know which treatment they're receiving]. We don't really know whether this works or not. The ideal treatment is to have a therapeutic agent that prevents or slows down the underlying cause of the problem." He adds that the diabetics who tightly control their blood sugar levels can avoid the risk of neuropathy.

"I am not saying this does not work, but they have not eliminated the placebo effect," says Gary Gerard, MD, director of the Neurology Center of Ohio in Toledo and former vice chairman of the department of neurology and associate professor at the Medical College of Ohio. "The placebo effect in pain of any kind is enormous, and I would say that if they did not eliminate that, it would void the results." Gerard, who was not involved in this study, is conducting studies on medications for neuropathy.

Even if the treatment does work -- and Gerard doubts that it does -- he points out that it would be too costly and impractical, particularly given the prevalence of diabetic neuropathy. "You are talking about three treatments a week, every week -- forever," he says. "To pay for the doctors' time -- it would cost billions."

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