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HEALTH ENCYCLOPEDIA

Diseases & Conditions A - Z
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Diabetic Neuropathy

Overview

Diabetic neuropathy is a common complication of types 1 and 2 diabetes due to uncontrolled high blood sugar levels that result in damage to the nerves. According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), between 60 and 70 percent of diabetics have some form of neuropathy. (ADA)

In cases of severe or prolonged neuropathy, patients may suffer injuries or infections in their extremities or soft tissue damage that requires amputation. If you are diabetic and are experiencing numbness, tingling, pain or weakness of your hands or feet, you must see your doctor. These are the early symptoms a neuropathy.

Types of Diabetic Neuropathy

Peripheral Neuropathy (Disorder of nerves outside the brain or spinal cord)

Peripheral neuropathy is the most common type of neuropathy, and is the result of damage to the nerves responsible for sensory and motor function in the arms, hands, legs and feet and sense organs – sound, smell, sight, and taste. The nerve endings in your legs and arms are the most commonly affected. Peripheral neuropathy can cause numbness, tingling, and pain in your extremities. Failure to notice injuries or infections, especially in your feet, due to loss of sensation is common.

Autonomic Neuropathy (Disorder of the peripheral nervous system that is involuntary)

The autonomic nervous system the involuntary system, is one that we have no control over. Many body organs and muscles are controlled by this system. For instance, the autonomic system controls important organs, including the heart, eyes, bladder, and lungs. Autonomic neuropathy, therefore, can cause problems with your digestive and urinary tracts along with your eyes and sex organs. A common complaint of male diabetics with neuropathy is impotence or erectile dysfunction.

Diabetic Amyotrophy

This form of neuropathy most commonly affects the hips, thighs, and legs. Diabetic amyotrophy usually affects only one side of the body. It is most common in the elderly, though it can present as early as your late twenties.

Mononeuropathy

Mononeuropathy occurs when there is damage to one specific nerve, most commonly in your torso or face. The pain of mononeuropathy can be extreme, but it usually does not lead to long-term complications.

What Causes Diabetic Neuropathy?

Diabetic neuropathy is caused by nerve damage, usually due to high blood sugar levels that weaken the walls of your blood vessels. Damaged blood vessels are not able to carry nutrients and oxygen to your nerves efficiently. Without these essential sources of energy, the nerves become damaged, leading to neuropathy.

Other potential causes of diabetic neuropathy include:

  • nerve inflammation
  • nerve injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome
  • smoking

Recognizing the Symptoms of Diabetic Neuropathy

It’s common for symptoms of neuropathy to appear gradually. In most cases, the first sign is a feeling of “pins and needles” in your feet.

Other common signs and symptoms of diabetic neuropathy include:

  • sensitivity to touch
  • loss of sense of touch
  • difficulty with coordination on walking
  • numbness or pain in your extremities
  • muscle weakness or wasting
  • nausea and indigestion
  • diarrhea or constipation
  • dizziness upon standing
  • excessive sweating
  • vaginal dryness in women and erectile dysfunction in men
  • foot ulcers
  • skin infections

Diagnosing Diabetic Neuropathy

Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history and conduct a physical examination. During the physical exam your doctor will check your reflexes and level of sensitivity to temperature and touch.

Your doctor may order additional tests to help reach a diagnosis. These tests may include an electromyogram (EMG), which shows the electrical activity in your muscles. The doctor may do a simple filament test, using a nylon fiber to check your limbs for loss of sensation. You may also need a nerve conduction study to test how quickly the nerves in your arms and legs conduct electrical signals.

Treatment for Diabetic Neuropathy

There is no cure for diabetic neuropathy, but treatment can slow the progression of your condition. Treatment can also help you manage symptoms, such as pain and indigestion.

Slowing the Disease’s Progress

Keeping your blood sugar levels within a healthy range can slow the progress of the disease. It can also lead to some symptom relief. Quitting smoking and exercising regularly are also parts of a comprehensive treatment plan.

Pain Management

Anti-seizure and antidepressant medicines are among the most common drugs used to treat pain caused by diabetic neuropathy. Talk to your doctor about the medications available and their side effects. You may also want to consider alternative therapies, such as acupuncture. Alternative therapies can provide some relief when used in conjunction with medication.

Managing Complications

If you have problems with digestion as a result of your neuropathy, your doctor may suggest that you eat smaller meals more often and limit the amount of fiber you eat. If you’re a female experiencing vaginal dryness, your doctor may give you lubricants. If you’re a male with erectile dysfunction, medication such as Viagra may be prescribed.

Preventing Diabetic Neuropathy

Diabetic neuropathy is preventable if you manage your blood sugar levels properly. Be consistent in monitoring your blood glucose levels, taking you oral medications and using your insulin, if it has been prescribed. . Keeping your diabetes in check is the best way to prevent diabetic neuropathy.

Diabetics with neuropathy need to take special care of their feet. The nerves in the feet are the most distant in your body and are the most commonly affected by neuropathy. Make sure to check your feet often for any cuts or blisters because you may not feel them forming. Keep your feet clean and dry and make sure that your toenails are trimmed and filed properly. If you have signs and symptoms of diabetic neuropathy, nail and foot care should be done by a health care practitioner or a podiatrist.


Content licensed from:

Written by: Carmella Wint
Medically reviewed : Brenda B. Spriggs, MD, MPH, FACP

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your healthcare provider. Please consult a healthcare professional with any health concerns you may have.
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