You may not have heard of dendritic spines, which are very tiny bumps on the surface of the nerve cells. But new research shows that changes in their structure may be contributing to diabetic neuropathy, a painful, chronic condition affecting nearly 50 percent of individuals with diabetes, according to research reported in Science Daily.

"How diabetes leads to neuropathic pain is still a mystery," Yale School of Medicine's Andrew Tan, Ph.D., told Science Daily. "An interesting line of study is based on the idea that neuropathic pain is due to faulty 'rewiring' of pain circuitry."

The research, from Yale University and the West Haven Veterans Affairs Medical Center, appeared in the Journal of Neuroscience, according to Science Daily. Tan told Science Daily: "Here we reveal that these dendritic spines, first studied in memory circuit processing, also contribute to the sensation of pain in diabetes."

"The more pain you have, the more likely you are to have more dendritic spine formation," explains Gayatri Devi, MD, attending physician in the Department of Medicine at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

Not only did the researchers learn that abnormal dendritic spines were linked to diabetic neuropathy, they found that a particular drug could lessen pain in lab animals. Focusing on abnormal dendritic spines could some day help come up with a medication that would help those who suffer from diabetic neuropathy.

If you suspect that you have diabetic neuropathy, which is a lifelong condition, here's what you can do to help stay healthy:

  • Tell your doctor right away about any symptoms. If you get treatment early, you may be able to avoid more problems down the road. For example, if you take care of a foot infection early, it can help prevent amputation.
  • Check your feet daily, using a mirror to examine the soles. Use your hands to check both feet for hot or cold spots. See your doctor if you spot any problems. And if you tend to have dry skin, apply lotion to your feet (though not between the toes.)
  • Wear socks and shoes, and when bathing or showering, wash your feet in warm water.
  • Check your feet regularly for corns, calluses, ingrown toenails, and swelling. And don't be afraid to ask for help from a family member.
  • Let your doctor know about your typical exercise regimen. Not all exercise is recommended for those who have diabetic neuropathy, so be sure to choose a type that's right for you.