Diabetes can damage the nerves throughout your body leading to a condition called diabetic neuropathy. Left untreated, diabetic neuropathy can be painful, and can also pave the way to some serious health complications. Here’s an overview of why neuropathy happens, and what you can do to prevent complications.
What causes diabetic neuropathy?
Having high blood sugar over an extended period of time can damage your peripheral nerves, which are the ones that go to your arms, hands, legs and feet. In fact, the most common symptoms of diabetic neuropathy tend to appear in the toes and feet.
In addition to high blood sugar, other factors that can increase your risk for diabetic neuropathy include: high blood pressure, smoking, excess body weight and elevated triglycerides (a type of fat found in the body).
What are the symptoms?
Here are some common symptoms that may signal you have nerve damage related to diabetic neuropathy:
- sharp, shooting pains or a burning sensation
- numbness to the point where you can’t really feel pain, heat or cold
- a feeling of being pricked by pins
How is it diagnosed?
The best way to check for diabetic neuropathy is to have your doctor or a foot specialist do an easy and pain-free test. They will either lightly press a thin nylon rod on different areas of your foot, or use a 128-Hz tuning fork on the back of your big toe to see if you can feel it.
If you have type 2 diabetes, you should begin annual screening for diabetic neuropathy right after diagnosis. If you have type 1 diabetes, the condition is uncommon within the first five years of onset, so testing should start after that. (For children with type 1 diabetes, testing should start after puberty.)
How do you treat diabetic neuropathy?
If you have painful neuropathy already, talk to your doctor about medications that may relieve nerve pain, such as anti-seizure medications and antidepressants. There are also some alternative therapies, such as acupuncture and capsaicin cream, which may provide relief.
See below for tips on how you can also slow the progression of the condition so you can avoid further complications.
What are the complications?
Diabetic neuropathy can increase your risk for foot ulcers and even amputation. Because of nerve damage, you may not notice the minor cuts, blisters and sores on your feet and arms. But if left untreated, these minor wounds can become infected and lead to gangrene and eventual amputation.
Can diabetic neuropathy be prevented?
Keeping blood sugar levels at target can help prevent diabetic neuropathy. In addition, there are things you can do to help prevent future complications:
- Wear shoes that fit properly
- Check your feet and legs daily for sores, cuts or blisters and treat them accordingly
- Test your bath water to ensure it’s not too hot before you step in
- Don’t soak your feet
- Be sure to apply lotion to dry feet, avoiding the area between the toes
- Care for your nails regularly
- Manage your blood sugar levels to prevent further nerve damage
- Keep your blood pressure in check
- Talk to your healthcare advisor about any sudden changes in vision or digestion
- Avoid smoking.
- Follow a healthy eating plan
- Get enough exercise
- Have regular checks by one of your diabetes healthcare team members
While diabetic neuropathy may be inevitable when you have diabetes, it doesn’t have to ruin your quality of life. By implementing some key lifestyle tips and managing your diabetes properly, you can keep the condition in check to prevent future complications.