Samantha Markovitz, NBC-HWC
Conversations about complications related to diabetes can be difficult to have, but it's important to be aware of the connection between diabetes and diabetic neuropathy. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, diabetic neuropathy is the most common complication of diabetes, affecting up to 50% of people living with diabetes.
Understanding the symptoms — and how to be proactive in the care of your diabetes and diabetic neuropathy — will help you manage your concerns about this health issue. Here's what to know about diabetic neuropathy as well as tips for preventing and treating it.
What is diabetic neuropathy?
Diabetic neuropathy is the term given to nerve damage that's caused by diabetes. High blood glucose levels over a sustained period of time can cause damage to the nerves and small blood vessels that transport oxygen and nutrients.
The four types of diabetic neuropathy are associated with various types of nerve damage:
Peripheral neuropathy. The most common type of diabetic neuropathy, it typically causes pain, tingling, and numbness in the feet and legs as well as in the hands and arms.
Autonomic neuropathy. This affects the nerves that control internal organs, causing disruption to the digestive system, heart rate and blood pressure, sex organs, eyes, and bladder. It can also affect a person's ability to sense low blood sugar.
Focal neuropathy. This describes damage to single nerves, like those in the hands, torso, head, and legs. Carpal tunnel is the most common type of focal neuropathy.
Proximal neuropathy. While this is considered rare, it can occur in the hips, buttocks, or thighs. It may also spread severe pain to one side of the body.
What are the symptoms to be aware of?
Tingling, loss of sensation, burning, or shooting pain are indicators of nerve damage, which usually occurs over many years. Sometimes people don't notice the symptoms of mild neuropathy for quite a while — so if you think you may be at risk, it's important to work with your medical team to monitor for early signs of diabetic neuropathy.
Individuals experiencing neuropathy are also at risk for balance and coordination issues, chronic pain, and wounds like diabetic foot ulcers.
During your next check-in, consider talking with your doctor about diabetes and diabetic neuropathy to create a personalized plan for prevention and treatment. There are many noninvasive ways of checking for neuropathy, like monofilament testing and ankle reflex testing. Additionally, your physician can check the sensitivity in your feet by using a tuning fork to see at what point you can feel the vibrations.
What can be done to prevent and treat diabetic neuropathy?
While researchers are still determining why some folks with diabetes develop complications while others don't, you can take some actions to mitigate your chances of developing diabetic neuropathy and its associated health issues. Here are some healthy habits that may help you reduce your risk:
Manage your blood glucose to stay in your range as much as possible.
Continue to eat a balanced diet and exercise regularly, as this can encourage in-range blood sugars and keep your body healthy overall.
Ask your endocrinologist to do regular foot exams at your appointments, or see a podiatrist who specializes in working with people with diabetes for additional foot care.
Seek out help to quit smoking.
Limit your intake of alcoholic beverages. The current recommendations are to stick with no more than one drink per day for women or two drinks per day for men, according to the American Diabetes Association.
Practice foot care regularly to avoid additional complications associated with peripheral neuropathy, like diabetic foot ulcers. Some examples of foot care include performing regular self-exams, keeping your feet covered with socks and well-fitting shoes, and contacting your doctor if you notice anything unusual with your feet, even if it seems minor to you.
If you're struggling with diabetic neuropathy, your doctor may prescribe you a medication to treat the nerve pain. Studies have shown that alpha-lipoic acid (ALA) supplements may also prevent and assist in the treatment of neuropathy, according to Podiatry Today.
Staying up to date with medical appointments and new information about how to manage your diabetes (and any potential complications) can keep you feeling empowered instead of concerned.
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