Increased blood sugar levels in the body can cause damage to the nerves, blood vessels and other vital organs. People with severely uncontrolled or prolonged diabetes can witness a number of complications including damage to the retina of the eyes (retinopathy), nerves (neuropathy), kidneys (nephropathy), skin problems, diabetic foot and diabetic ketoacidosis.
As per a review article published in the Handbook of Clinical Neurology, out of all the diabetes-related complications, neuropathy is experienced by almost 60 to 70% of people living with the condition. Diabetic neuropathy often goes undiagnosed due to the similarity of their symptoms to other common conditions.
What is diabetic neuropathy?
Diabetic neuropathy is a complication commonly seen in patients with type 1 and type 2 diabetes, where the nerves of the body get damaged. This damage can either result in mild pain and numbness in the extremities or can hinder the functioning of the major organs such as the heart and bladder. Diabetic neuropathy can be categorised into three main types:
- Sensory neuropathy: Damage to the nerves that detect touch and temperature - commonly affects the feet and hands.
- Motor neuropathy: Damage to the nerves that help in muscle movement.
- Autonomic neuropathy: Damage to the nerves that control involuntary actions of the body such as digestion.
What are the signs of diabetic neuropathy?
Since nerve damage progresses gradually over several years, the symptoms may not be noticeable if it is mild. However, some people may experience severe pain suddenly and without prior warning. The signs of diabetic neuropathy depend upon the form of neuropathy present and the nerves getting affected. The common signs of diabetic neuropathy include:
- Numbness, especially in the extremities, i.e., toes, fingers
- Tingling sensation
- Pain in the body
- Weakness in the limbs
- Difficulties with walking, balance, and coordination
- Loss of muscle mass in the feet, legs, hands, and hips
If the internal organs get affected the person may start having difficulty swallowing, indigestion, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea or constipation, problems with urination, dryness in the vagina and erectile dysfunction.
The person can also experience low blood pressure after sitting or standing up, which can result in dizziness or fainting. Diabetics experiencing any such symptoms must consult their doctor to get early detection.
Who is more likely to get diabetic neuropathy?
There are certain individuals suffering from diabetes who at increased risk of developing neuropathy. They include people with -
- Poorly controlled diabetes
- Weight issues
- High blood pressure
- Age above 40 years
- High levels of triglycerides
- Habits such as smoking and consuming alcohol
- Chronic liver or kidney disease
- Vitamin B deficiency
- Prolonged diabetes (living with diabetes for a long period of time)
- Other diseases and anti-cancer drugs
- Coronary heart disease or other heart condition.
Can diabetic neuropathy be prevented?
To prevent diabetic neuropathy, the primary goal should be to carefully manage blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol levels of the body. There are certain things that can be done to prevent diabetic neuropathy:
- Adhere to the medications prescribed by the doctor
- Follow healthy eating habits and consume whole, nutritious food
- Limit the consumption of high-fat and high-calorie processed foods
- Reduce salt consumption to keep blood pressure in the normal range
- Take up some form of moderate-intensity exercise such as brisk walking, riding a bicycle or swimming to stay physically active
- Quit smoking to reduce the risk of neuropathy
- Significantly reduce the consumption of alcohol.
Diabetics, at high risk of developing neuropathy, must take care of their feet to avoid the development of ulcers. Feet care involves:
- Examine the feet every day for any red spots, cuts, swellings or blisters
- Nails of the feet should be cut and trimmed carefully
- Pat dry the feet after bathing and moisturize them later
- Wear well-fitted shoes and wear thick, soft, seamless socks along with them.
Studies have shown that people with prolonged diabetes have an increased chance of developing nerve damage as they get old. However, by maintaining healthy blood glucose levels, avoiding high-fat processed foods and adopting an active lifestyle, diabetic neuropathy can be prevented and delayed successfully.