ABU DHABI // More than 400,000 diabetics may be suffering from diabetic nerve pain, a study has found.
Doctors say the condition, which occurs when the nerves are damaged by too much glucose in the blood, may be twice as common among diabetics in the Middle East compared to in the West.
If could affect as many as two-thirds of diabetics in the region, compared with barely a quarter in Western countries.
The condition, said Dr Mohammed Saadah, consultant neurologist at Zayed Military Hospital, can be excruciating.
It begins as a numbness or tingling in the limbs, he said, and develops into a burning pain "so severe that some patients are not even able to tolerate the weight of their bed sheets on their thighs".
While the pain can be localised to just one foot, it can spread to the legs, knees or whole body. It can even be felt as a searing pain in the face. "It's horrific," said Dr Saadah.
Yet only 10 per cent of patients seek medical help, perhaps because of a culture that frowns on voicing concern over pain.
Dr Ammar Salti, the consultant anaesthetist at Zayed Military Hospital who compiled the data on the condition, said the main reasons it was more common in Arab countries were later diagnosis and treatment combined with the high levels of diabetes.
The UAE has the second highest prevalence of diabetes in the world - behind the Pacific island nation of Nauru - with almost a fifth of the population affected. Also in the top 10 are Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
"Other reasons include genetic and social factors, such as higher rates of consanguine marriages and obesity as a result of unhealthy lifestyles - both of which are real problems in the region, particularly the Gulf," he said.
Marriage between cousins, he said, increases the chance of an offspring getting diabetes if there is family history of the condition.
Once the damage has set in, it cannot be reversed. And, according to Dr Saadah, it is a costly problem. "Chronic pain causes sleep and mood disturbances, which causes anxiety and depressions and affects people's quality of life," he said.
The issue of diabetic nerve damage was raised in Dubai last week by the former US president Bill Clinton. "It affects the stability of the family in the worst way, having people of younger and younger ages in pain and with constant medical problems that erode the fabric of ordinary life," he said at the MENA Diabetes Leadership Forum.