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posted: 5/17/2010 12:01 AM

An alternative treatment for diabetic neuropathy

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Imagine having a constant burning feeling in your hands and feet with an associated feeling of numbness. You cannot do the simplest of activities like walking or shaking hands without pain and, over time, these symptoms only get worse. This is a medical condition called neuropathy. It affects 60 percent to 70 percent of diabetics and traditional medical therapy, quite frankly, is limited. Fortunately, recent medical research may have an answer and it is alpha lipoic acid. In diabetics, neuropathy may occur when the small blood vessels that feed the nerves are damaged by chronically elevated blood sugar levels. All types of nerves are affected, including those associated with pain, sensation and muscle function. The decreased blood supply causes the nerves to misfire, resulting in a feeling of pain, burning and numbness. Traditional medical therapies include the use of specific anti-seizure medications and antidepressants. In addition, topical pain medications and stimulating blood flow in the tissues with infrared heat are commonly used. Unfortunately, none of these therapies can boast genuine success. The dietary supplement alpha lipoic acid may be a real addition to the medical options.

Alpha lipoic acid is a compound that is essential for human life. One of its functions is as an antioxidant. It also regenerates other antioxidants like vitamin C and vitamin E. It was first used as a therapeutic agent in the mid-1950s by Franz Rausch M.D., who used it to bring patients out of comas related to liver failure. Since that time, alpha lipoic acid has been shown to be beneficial for many diseases including diabetic neuropathy, liver disease, improving memory and cognition, accelerating wound healing, preventing migraines and even preventing cell damage due to various types of poisoning. As far as memory and cognition, I have several Alzheimer's disease patients who have improved with alpha lipoic acid therapy.

Recently, a report published in the Netherlands Journal of Medicine summarized years of research on alpha lipoic acid and diabetic neuropathy. The researchers did a systematic review of all the publications and clinical trials with alpha lipoic acid and diabetic neuropathy. This type of data collection is powerful because it combines the results of many studies. What they found was that alpha lipoic acid could reduce the symptoms of diabetic neuropathy by 50 percent. Although taking ALA by mouth was beneficial, weekly intravenous infusions of alpha lipoic acid significantly improved the pain associated with diabetic neuropathy.

Alpha lipoic acid is present in most foods but in very small amounts. In early alpha lipoic acid research, it took 10 tons of liver to isolate only 30 mg of alpha lipoic acid. Today, alpha lipoic acid is chemically synthesized and health benefits are associated with the concentrations found in specific dietary supplements (200 mg to 600mg).

Generally, alpha lipoic acid is safe. Side effects include stomach upset and at high doses, alpha lipoic acid may lower blood sugar. Head-to-head clinical trials with alpha lipoic acid and current medications for diabetic neuropathy have not been done, so it is difficult to compare overall effectiveness. However, for those with diabetic neuropathy, alpha lipoic acid may be a real option.

•Patrick B. Massey, M.D., Ph.D is medical director for complementary and alternative medicine for the Alexian Brothers Hospital Network.

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