Diabetic neuropathy is one of the most common diabetes complications. Peripheral neuropathy, which affects the hands and feet, is one of the most common types. High blood sugar damages the nerves over time, causing numbness and tingling in the extremities. Damage to blood vessels reduces blood flow and exacerbates the problem.
And it’s often the worst in winter months, when the cold weather can cause blood vessels to narrow, further compromising blood flow. Peripheral neuropathy makes it hard to realize when our extremities are getting cold. It’s possible to get cold enough to cause tissue damage without even realizing it.
Symptoms of peripheral neuropathy include numbness, tingling, temperature insensitivity, pain, sensitivity to touch, muscle weakness, joint pain, and slow healing wounds.
But enough doom and gloom—there are ways help prevent and manage peripheral neuropathy. Here are 7 ways to combat peripheral neuropathy when the weather turns chilly:
1. Stay Warm, of course!
This might seem obvious, but staying warm is more important, and more difficult, when you’re dealing with neuropathy. When you’re outside, especially if you’re having fun, you may not realize how cold you are until you start to thaw out and your fingers start to throb. Keeping your whole body warm can promote circulation to your feet and hands, so dress warmly from head to toe and take warming breaks indoors or in a heated car when you’re outside in cold weather.
2. Protect Hands And Feet
Be prepared at all times to keep your feet and hands warm. Your extremities get cold quickly, and with neuropathy you may not realize just how cold they are until the damage has been done. Grab a pair of gloves and good shoes even if you’re only popping out for a little bit. Keep extra socks and gloves on hand so you’re ready if your current pair gets wet. Make a habit of making sure your fingers and toes are always snug, even if it’s not “that cold.”
3. Stop Smoking
Smoking can slow your circulation by causing your blood vessels to constrict. This means less blood flow to the skin which further reduces your ability to keep those fingers and toes, and the rest of your body, nice and toasty.
4. Encourage blood flow
When we’re cold, it’s hard to keep moving. We just want to curl up and shiver! But that only further restricts blood flow. Avoid positions that cut off circulation, like clenched hands or crossed legs, but be sure to keep your joints moving, even if it’s just wiggling your fingers and toes. Give your blood an excuse to get to your hands and feet to keep them from getting stiff and painful.
While it’s important to keep your fingers and toes moving, regular cardiovascular exercise promotes stronger overall circulation, which will fight the effects of neuropathy long-term. You don’t have to run marathons—any exercise that is safe for you and gets your heart rate up is great! The CDC recommends that most adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardiovascular exercise per week for “substantial benefits.” But even smaller amounts of exercise are helpful. Commit to caring for yourself through movement!
6. Stay Dry
Wet feet easily become cold feet, and it’s not as easy to tell if your feet are wet as you might think when dealing with neuropathy. Make sure your shoes are appropriate for the weather, keep dry socks on hand, and check your feet when you get home. Even if you manage to keep your feet warm, damp toes can be a breeding ground for infections, which are harder to fight off with neuropathy. People with diabetes should always prioritize proper foot care to stay healthy and avoid serious infections that can start in the feet.
7. Get a massage
A gentle massage, whether from a professional, a loved one, or yourself, can increase circulation, increase warmth, and be delightfully relaxing. Even just gently rubbing your fingers and toes can help, and reducing stress offers long-term health benefits to blood sugar and blood pressure.
With diabetes, it’s easy to feel like you have a never-ending laundry list of things to do to keep yourself healthy. It’s tough, there’s no getting around it. As much as possible, recruit help and find ways to make managing symptoms feel more like self-care: buy pretty gloves, find relaxing exercise classes, and remind yourself that you’re worth the effort—because you are!
Katie Taylor started writing in 5th grade and hasn't stopped since. Her favorite place to pen a phrase is in front of her fireplace with a cup of tea, but she's been known to write in parking lots on the backs of old receipts if necessary. She and her husband live cozily in the Pacific Northwest enjoying rainy days and Netflix.