You’ve probably heard about neuropathy. Maybe you know that diabetic feet need special care. Or you’re familiar with the horror stories about amputations because of neuropathy. But how much do you actually know about this dangerous diabetes complication?

Many of us might not look into the details until it’s absolutely necessary – that is, when things are already going wrong. Knowing the symptoms and causes of neuropathy can help you understand your risk and take action at the first sign of trouble.

What causes neuropathy?

The causes are probably different for the four different types of diabetic neuropathy. But, as a diabetic, your highest risk factor is likely long-term exposure to high blood sugar, which damages delicate nerve fibers.

Exactly why this happens isn't completely clear, but a combination of factors likely plays a role, including the complex interaction between nerves and blood vessels. High blood glucose interferes with the ability of the nerves to transmit signals. It also weakens the walls of the small blood vessels (capillaries) that supply the nerves with oxygen and nutrients.

Other factors that may contribute to diabetic neuropathy include:

  • Autoimmune response that cause inflammation in the nerves. This occurs when your immune system mistakenly attacks part of your body as if it were a foreign organism.
  • Genetic factors unrelated to diabetes that make some people more susceptible to nerve damage.
  • Smoking and alcohol abuse damages nerves and blood vessels and significantly increases the risk of infections.

Recognize the symptoms

Peripheral neuropathy is the most common form of diabetic neuropathy. It affects the very ends of nerves first, starting with the longest nerves – in other words, feet and legs first, followed by hands and arms.

In general, symptoms of diabetic neuropathy may include:
Numbness, especially in your feet, toes, hands and fingers
A tingling or burning feeling
Sharp, jabbing pain that may be worse at night or when walking
Muscle weakness
Dizziness or faintness when standing or sitting up
Diarrhea or constipation
Trouble with urination
Indigestion, nausea or vomiting