Almost half of all people with diabetes have neuropathies, or nerve damage. If you are one of the 19 million who have been diagnosed with diabetes, you probably know to eat healthy, exercise, monitor your blood sugar and take your diabetes medications. But that can be easier said than done.
Here’s extra motivation: monitoring your diabetes today could mean avoiding a painful nerve-damaged future.
The threat of neuropathy comes from the damage high blood sugar can produce throughout your body, including your nervous system. Neuropathy may be mild but it may lead to amputation or even be fatal. So it is essential you understand the types of neuropathy and take precautions to prevent this common complication from seriously complicating your life.
It is unclear exactly how high blood sugar damages nerves, but doctors are sure about its symptoms, which depend on which nerves are damaged. There are four types of diabetic neuropathy with ranging effects and symptoms.
Of the four types of diabetic neuropathy, the most common is peripheral. It affects feet, legs, hands and arms. That is where the nerve-ending damage can lead to burning, tingling, loss of pain or temperature sensation, sensitivity to touch, and/or difficult, painful walking. The most classic symptom is the "stocking glove" sensory loss, which means the pain affects you from your foot to your mid-calf, and it can affect your arms similarly.
If nerves affecting key organ systems are impaired, the result is autonomic diabetic neuropathy. Because these nerves control the functions of your respiratory, visual, circulatory, reproductive and digestive systems, symptoms can vary widely. They can range from an inability to sense your need for food to a racing heart rate, from sexual difficulties to an inability to regulate your body temperature.
This neuropathy targets nerves located in or near your hips, thighs, buttocks or shoulders. It can cause pain in these regions, weak leg muscles and weight loss.
The last type is focal neuropathy. It affects just one or a small group of nerves anywhere in the body. This type of nerve damage can produce pain, weakness or both.
Testing and treatment
Doctors check for neuropathies by doing a variety of sensation tests. They test for a loss of vibratory sensations by using a tuning fork. The instrument vibrates slightly and patients with neuropathy may not feel the vibrations against their foot. Another test is a position test. It involves the patient keeping his or her eyes closed while the doctor moves the toes slightly up or down. People with diabetic neuropathy cannot feel the movement. Other tests involve pain, light touch, and temperature sensation; for example, a pinprick test. People with neuropathy may not feel the touch of a pin on their toe. During the light touch test, the doctor uses a cotton swap or Q-tip rather than a pin.
There are a variety of diabetic neuropathy treatments that are available to help with the pain from diabetic neuropathy. The best way to help yourself is to exercise, which will help increase blood flow. You should also eat a healthy diet to help control your blood sugar, and take your diabetes medication regularly.