Many people in this Michigan city have undiagnosed nerve damage

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Over 20 million Americans are living with nerve damage in their arms and legs, a condition known as peripheral neuropathy.

This issue often causes more than just numbness and tingling; over one-third of those affected suffer from sharp, prickling pain which can lead to depression.

Researchers from Michigan Medicine, working alongside Hurley Medical Center, conducted a study in Flint, Michigan, focusing on a community that is predominantly Black and economically disadvantaged.

Surprisingly, they found that nearly three-quarters of the patients at a local clinic had peripheral neuropathy, and a shocking 75% of these cases were previously undiagnosed. These findings were published in the prestigious medical journal, Neurology.

Melissa A. Elafros, a leading researcher at the University of Michigan Medical School, emphasized the unexpected high rate of neuropathy in this group. She suggested that there’s a significant need to better manage risk factors to prevent neuropathy in such communities.

Despite over half of the participants reporting symptoms of neuropathic pain, many cases went unrecognized. This indicates a critical gap in diagnosis and an urgent need to work with community members and healthcare providers to find solutions.

Elafros and her team were particularly drawn to this clinic because it serves a large number of Medicaid patients, reflecting an often underrepresented group in clinical research.

Out of nearly 200 patients, 69% were non-Hispanic Black, nearly half had a household income below $20,000, and 37% faced food insecurity recently. Through clinical tests, the researchers confirmed that 73% of these patients had peripheral neuropathy.

Alongside neuropathy, many patients were battling other chronic illnesses. More than half had diabetes and two-thirds suffered from metabolic syndrome, which are both known to increase the risk of developing neuropathy.

Despite frequent visits to their doctors, these conditions were often poorly managed, according to Huda Marcus, an internal medicine hospitalist at Hurley Medical Center.

Previous studies have indicated that lower income levels are linked to a higher risk of complications from diabetes.

Although this study did not conclusively prove that, it raised concerns about whether the study’s size and demographic were sufficiently broad to capture the full scope of the issue.

Interestingly, the results showed that non-Hispanic Black patients at the Flint clinic were less likely to have neuropathy compared to a national average where Black Americans typically have higher rates of the condition.

Elafros suggested that more research is needed to confirm whether these findings are reflective of the wider Flint population. Further studies should explore the medical and socioeconomic factors driving neuropathy in a larger and more diverse group of people.

This research is just a beginning. The team plans to expand their study by collaborating with another local clinic that serves a different demographic to get a clearer picture of the community’s health challenges.

When someone is diagnosed with neuropathy, it is crucial that they receive appropriate care to manage pain and prevent complications like falls and foot injuries, which can lead to further mental health issues.

While the study did not initially set out to solve the screening and treatment gaps in primary care, Brian Callaghan, a senior researcher, stressed the importance of addressing these barriers.

Effective diagnosis and management of neuropathy are key to improving patient outcomes, and the need for these interventions is urgent.

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The research findings can be found in Neurology.

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