We evaluated neuropathological abnormalities in sural nerve biopsies from 6 nondiabetic control subjects and 16 age-matched diabetic patients with different syndromes of sensory polyneuropathy (6 with chronic painful neuropathy [CPN], 4 with newly presenting painful neuropathy [NPN], and 6 with painless neuropathy associated with recurrent neurotrophic foot ulcers [RFU]). Although all but one of the evaluated features of myelinated and unmyelinated fiber pathology could be found in every diabetic patient, certain myelinated fiber abnormalities were associated with the clinical characteristics of the neuropathy. Thus, myelinated fiber density was severely reduced, “empty” Schwann tubes (an index of myelinated fiber degeneration) were increased, and early regeneration (bands of Bungner [BB], nonmyelinated axons) was pronounced in the RFU group. Progression from BB to regenerating myelinated fiber cluster (myelination and maturation) was more successful in patients with CPN and NPN than in those with RFU, and the finding of fibers with disproportionately large Schwann cells (cytoplasm and myelin) relative to axon caliber was exclusive to patients with neuropathic pain. We concluded that 1) unequal rates of successful fiber regeneration may cunderlie the apparent difference in the extent of myelinated fiber loss between painful and painless diabetic polyneuropathy; 2) myelinated and unmyelinated fiber degeneration and regeneration per se are probably not the cause of neuropathic pain in diabetic polyneuropathy, because each occurred in patients with RFU; and 3) axonal atrophy may be involved in neuropathic pain generation.

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