Lifewatch: Nerve Damage

CHICAGO -- Nerve damage can be painful, sometimes numbing, and if left untreated can even be fatal.

It's a complication of diabetes and there is a surgery to relieve it, but some believe it's a surgical treatment that may do more harm than good.

Most of the time, patient Donald Leweck feels an itchy and burning sensation that feels like there are little things crawling around inside his legs and feet.

His peripheral neuropathy is so bad, he is often in pain.

Sometimes he is numb and can't work on his farm without scratching and cutting himself.

"Walking around in the woods, if you look at my shins, you'll see all these scars. I didn't know that was happening because there's no feeling there," said Leweck.

Donald and his wife thought there was no cure for the damaged nerves in his legs, until they found out about a controversial surgery that some doctors believe could help the millions of Americans diagnosed with neuropathy.

Diabetes is the main cause of condition, but Lupus and Lyme Disease can also trigger the condition.

The pain often comes from compressed and swollen nerves, and Donald's getting an operation that he hopes will relieve the pressure and return the nerves to normal.

According to University of Chicago plastic surgeon Ginard Henry, the operation works, but only in carefully chosen patients whose nerve damage is in specific locations.

"Peripheral neuropathy is not always treated by surgery and you need to make sure that the patient knows what their option is, " said Dr. Henry.

The operation is a non-starter for other surgeons.

Anand Vora from the Northwestern University Medical Center is an orthopedic surgeon and believes only a few patients qualify.

He said it works best in mild cases of the disease, but that's when medication works best as well.

He said the surgery can make things worse.

"If that nerve re-scars and the nerve again becomes trapped in the tissue, the pain can actually be dramatically more severe," said Dr. Vora.

Good research studies on this operation's success rate are sparse, leading the American Academy of Neurology to say, "the benefits of the surgery are considered unproven."

But for Donald Leweck, the operation was a success.

He can wiggle his toes and feel his wife's touch which is something that hasn't happened in years.

Reported by Kristy Ondo