Diabetic Neuropathy: What You Need to Know

Diabetes can come with some unfortunate complications. Some are simply inconvenient, while others are downright painful. One of the most common complications of diabetes is diabetic neuropathy. This condition, which is often painful and sometimes debilitating, is the result of nerve damage caused by diabetes.

While the condition can affect any nerve in the body, it most often affects the nerves in the feet and legs. The severity of neuropathy can vary depending upon the degree of damage and the length of time a person has had it. Unfortunately, most neuropathies also progress and worsen overtime.

About 60-70% of individuals with diabetes will someday develop some form of neuropathy. Risk increases with age, and those at highest risk are people who have had diabetes for at least 25 years.

And while this all might sound pretty scary, one of the best things you can do to protect yourself is understand it. Why? Because it’s the first step to delaying, or even preventing, the condition. Even if you’ve already developed the condition, understanding it can better arm you with the tools you need to properly manage the pain and slow progression.

Photo Credit: Adobe Stock/Kwangmoo
Photo Credit: Adobe Stock/Kwangmoo

What is diabetic neuropathy?

Diabetic neuropathy is actually a family of neuropathies. Each of these nerve disorders are caused by nerve damage, likely as a result of prolonged uncontrolled blood glucose levels. It is for this reason that people who have had diabetes for a long time are at increased risk of developing some form of neuropathy.

Peripheral neuropathy

Peripheral neuropathy, also known as distal symmetric neuropathy or sensorimotor neuropathy, is the most common form of diabetic neuropathy. It usually affects the feet and legs, but it can also affect, or spread to, the arms and hands, back, and abdomen. Symptoms are often unnoticeable to a patient initially but worsen over time. Discomfort is usually most prevalent at night.

Photo Credit: Adobe Stock/staras
Photo Credit: Adobe Stock/staras

Symptoms include:

  • Numbness
  • Tingling
  • Insensitivity to temperature
  • Stabbing, freezing, or burning pain, cramps
  • Sensitivity to touch
  • Problems with equilibrium and coordination
  • Muscle weakness
  • Problems with feet, including blisters, ulcers, infections, and deformities. Also, wounds that are slow to heal
  • Bone and joint pain

Autonomic Neuropathy

The autonomic nervous system controls bodily functions that are involuntary, such as temperature and blood pressure regulation, bladder control, and respiratory function. While the digestive system, particularly the stomach, is most often affected, other systems can also be affected.

Photo Credit: Adobe Stock/nebari
Photo Credit: Adobe Stock/nebari

Symptoms include:

  • Bloating, diarrhea, constipation
  • Hypoglycemia unawareness
  • Dizziness, fainting
  • Heartburn
  • Nausea, vomiting
  • Urinary tract problems, including UTI’s and incontinence
  • Low blood pressure
  • Feeling full quickly
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Sexual dysfunction- vaginal dryness in women, erectile dysfunction in men
  • Changes in sweating patterns
  • Difficulty regulating temperature
  • Diminished responsiveness to changes in light
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