Recessive dystrophic epidermolysis bullosa results in painful small fibre neuropathy.
von Bischhoffshausen S., Ivulic D., Alvarez P., Schuffeneger VC., Idiaquez J., Fuentes C., Morande P., Fuentes I., Palisson F., Bennett DL., Calvo M.
Small fibres in the skin are vulnerable to damage in metabolic or toxic conditions such as diabetes mellitus or chemotherapy resulting in small fibre neuropathy and associated neuropathic pain. Whether injury to the most distal portion of sensory small fibres due to a primary dermatological disorder can cause neuropathic pain is still unclear. Recessive dystrophic epidermolysis bullosa (RDEB) is a rare condition in which mutations of proteins of the dermo-epidermal junction lead to cycles of blistering followed by regeneration of the skin. Damage is exclusive to the skin and mucous membranes, with no known direct compromise of the nervous system. It is increasingly recognized that most RDEB patients experience daily pain, the aetiology of which is unclear but may include inflammation (in the wounds), musculoskeletal (due to atrophy and retraction scars limiting movement) or neuropathic pain. In this study we investigated the incidence of neuropathic pain and examined the presence of nerve dysfunction in RDEB patients. Around three quarters of patients presented with pain of neuropathic characteristics, which had a length-dependent distribution. Quantitative sensory testing of the foot revealed striking impairments in thermal detection thresholds combined with an increased mechanical pain sensitivity and wind up ratio (temporal summation of noxious mechanical stimuli). Nerve conduction studies showed normal large fibre sensory and motor nerve conduction; however, skin biopsy showed a significant decrease in intraepidermal nerve fibre density. Autonomic nervous system testing revealed no abnormalities in heart rate and blood pressure variability however the sympathetic skin response of the foot was impaired and sweat gland innervation was reduced. We conclude that chronic cutaneous injury can lead to injury and dysfunction of the most distal part of small sensory fibres in a length-dependent distribution resulting in disabling neuropathic pain. These findings also support the use of neuropathic pain screening tools in these patients and treatment algorithms designed to target neuropathic pain.