If you are living with diabetes, chances are you are no stranger to neuropathy. While some (even those who do have nerve damage) might experience no symptoms at all, about 60 to 70 percent of diabetics experience pain, soreness, loss of sensation, tingling in the extremities, and even digestive problems—or other conditions related to organ complications—all symptoms of peripheral neuropathy. Diabetes is, in turn, one of the most common causes of neuropathy overall.
Risk of developing diabetes-related neuropathy actually increases with age and extenuating health considerations (such as being overweight), partially because people who have problems with glucose control for extended periods of time—25 years or more—are more susceptible.
So what causes people who have diabetes to develop neuropathic symptoms? Research is occasionally unclear on the subject, but it is generally agreed that exposure to high blood glucose (high blood sugar) has a negative effect on nerve condition. Of course, this is in addition to other conditions or lifestyle factors commonly associated with causing or exacerbating neuropathy, such as injury, metabolic inconsistencies, inherited traits, or substance abuse.
There are a few kinds of neuropathy associated with diabetes, the most common being peripheral neuropathy (this is the type usually referred to when people simply say “neuropathy;” but we’ll get to the other types in a moment). Peripheral neuropathy is characterized by pain, numbness, tingling, and loss of motor function, among other sensation-related symptoms. This type is written about extensively, and can greatly impact quality of life for its sufferers. The good news is, most treatment and therapy for neuropathy addresses this kind, and many are very effective!
Focal and proximal neuropathy result in muscle weakness and pain, and typically target a specific nerve grouping. These types of neuropathy are commonly characterized by weakness in the legs, causing difficulty standing and walking.
Autonomic neuropathy, as the name implies, causes changes in autonomic bodily functions. These include bowel and bladder functions, sexual responses, and digestion. Autonomic neuropathy can be life-threatening in extreme cases, as it also affects nerves that serve the heart, lungs, and eyes. Especially troubling to diabetics is the resulting condition of hypoglycemia unawareness, which can obliviate the symptoms most diabetics associate with low glucose.
A comprehensive foot exam is recommended at least once a year for diabetics, to check for peripheral neuropathy. Once diagnosed, the need for more frequent exams becomes important. Additional to diabetic amputation concerns, your doctor will want to test your protective sensation by pricking your foot with a pin, or running monofilament across your skin. If you have lost protective sensation, you could be at risk to develop sores that might not heal properly, leading to infection.
For other types of neuropathy, a NeuropathyDR® clinician will perform a check of heart rate variability to detect how your heart rate changes in response to changes in blood pressure and posture, or even an ultrasound, which can detect whether other internal organs such as the kidneys and bladder are functioning properly.
Tight blood sugar control and a healthy diet is the best way to control diabetic neuropathy, as well as other diabetic conditions. Even if you don’t have symptoms of neuropathy, checkups with a NeuropathyDR®-trained clinician can help spot warning signs of factors that could endanger your nerve function or even be life-threatening. In addition to dietary considerations, your clinician can also help any symptoms by prescribing appropriate medication for pain you might experience.
If you have diabetes, you are at risk! If you have symptoms, or think you might, don’t let it go unchecked. Remember, the sooner neuropathy is diagnosed, the easier it will be to treat and to slow the progression of this degenerative condition. Your NeuropathyDR® clinician is trained to identify the various types of neuropathy and recommend the treatments that will help you retain your quality of life. If you are not already in-touch with a NeuropathyDR® doctor, contact us to find one in your area!