Many Docs Use Costly MRIs to Diagnose Nerve Condition: Study

Cheaper tests to spot diabetes-linked nerve damage are effective, researchers say

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WEDNESDAY, Jan. 25 (HealthDay News) -- Doctors are more likely to use high-cost MRI scans to diagnose peripheral neuropathy than cheaper -- and more effective -- glucose tolerance tests, a new U.S. study has found.

In people with peripheral neuropathy, the nerves that carry information to and from the brain don't work properly. Symptoms of the disorder include tingling, burning or less feeling in the arms or legs, and can range from mild to severe.

Diabetes is the most common cause of peripheral neuropathy, which affects about 15 percent of those over age 40.

When diagnosing peripheral neuropathy, doctors differ greatly in what tests they turn to, researchers at the University of Michigan noted in the study published in the Jan. 23 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine.

"We spend a lot of money to work up a diagnosis of neuropathy. The question is whether the money is well spent," study leader Dr. Brian Callaghan, an assistant professor of neurology at the University of Michigan Medical School, said in a university news release.

He and his colleagues analyzed data from the 1996-2007 U.S. Health and Retirement Study to identify patients diagnosed with peripheral neuropathy. The researchers focused on 15 diagnostic tests and looked at the number and patterns of tests six months before and after diagnosis.

The investigators found that nearly one-quarter of patients underwent MRIs, while very few (about 1 percent) had a simpler, less expensive glucose tolerance test, which is used to determine if someone has diabetes by measuring how well the body responds to sugar (glucose).

"Our findings, that MRIs were frequently ordered by physicians, but a lower-cost glucose tolerance test was rarely ordered, show that there is substantial opportunity to improve efficiency in the evaluation of peripheral neuropathy," Callaghan said in the news release.

"Currently no standard approach to the evaluation of peripheral neuropathy exists. We need more research to determine an optimal approach," he added.

More information

The U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke has more about peripheral neuropathy.

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