What is diabetic neuropathy? 

Diabetic neuropathy is nerve damage that diabetes causes. About half of everyone who has diabetes may also have this condition, according to the National Diabetes Association. Elevated blood sugar levels can cause permanent damage to your nerves. This tends to impact nerves in your legs and feet. It can also happen elsewhere in your body. This includes your digestive system, urinary tract and eyes.

Causes of diabetic neuropathy

Having high blood sugar levels for a long period of time causes diabetic neuropathy. If you have high levels of cholesterol in your blood, this can damage your blood vessels. That damage can also cause neuropathy. Drinking alcohol excessively or smoking may cause this condition, too.

Risk factors for diabetic neuropathy

If you have been diagnosed with either Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes, you're at great risk for getting diabetic neuropathy. It's a very common complication of this disease. It can cause great pain and discomfort. Diabetic neuropathy is one of the reasons why it's so important to work closely with your doctor and follow instructions for managing your diabetes. By managing your blood sugar levels, you can sometimes prevent or slow nerve damage.

Risk factors include:

  • Diabetes
  • Unchecked blood sugar levels
  • Having had diabetes for many years

Symptoms of diabetic neuropathy

There are four main types of diabetic neuropathy. They happen in different areas of your body. These types include:

  • Digestive system and sex organs
  • Sides of your hips or buttocks
  • Feet and legs
  • Your eyes 

Where the nerve damage is located can determine what kinds of symptoms you experience. They can also determine what treatment is best for you. Controlling your blood sugar levels is the main treatment for any type.

The main symptom is tingling and numbness of your feet, legs, arms, stomach or back. Other related symptoms include:

  • Pain
  • Double vision
  • Nausea or heartburn
  • Pain in the chest or belly
  • Dizziness and a faster heartbeat
  • Bloating, diarrhea or constipation
  • Paralysis on one side of your face
  • Numbness or tingling of the hands
  • Feeling full even after small meals
  • Difficulty emptying your bladder or incontinence
  • Weakness in your legs or pain on one side of your body

Diagnosis of diabetic neuropathy

If you've been diagnosed with diabetes, your doctor should look for signs of nerve damage in your body. The first step in determining if you have this condition is a physical exam. Your doctor can do a careful review of your symptoms. They'll likely check for any weakness in your muscles. They may want to test your reflexes and see how sensitive you are to touch. With each visit to the doctor you should check your feet for sores or blisters that aren't healing properly. You should also check once a week at home. If you have diabetes, get a full foot exam every year.

Treatments for diabetic neuropathy

You can't reverse nerve damage once you have it. Many treatments for diabetic neuropathy focus on prevention and helping with pain. Use a blood glucose meter every day and have an A1C test at your doctor's office at least twice a year. This helps you make sure your blood sugar is at a safe level throughout the year.

Take care of your feet. Clip your toenails regularly. Wear shoes that fit well. If necessary, purchase special shoes to prevent foot injuries. Try lifestyle changes, like eating smaller meals. Discuss exercise with your doctor to make sure it's safe. Wearing compression socks and sleeping with your head raised a few inches can also help, depending on your symptoms. 

Most importantly, report any numbness or pain to your doctor immediately. You might be able to keep any symptoms from getting worse. Medications are available for most of the specific symptoms.

Recovery from diabetic neuropathy

Diabetes is a lifelong disease. Managing it closely can help you and your doctor treat symptoms of diabetic neuropathy. Follow your doctor's recommendations for your specific situation. Try to keep your blood sugar and blood pressure under control. Be sure to eat healthy foods. Quit smoking and be active every day. Take breaks from sitting every 30 minutes to stretch and move to keep your blood flowing.

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