August 25, 2023

What is Diabetic Neuropathy?

Find out more about Diabetic Neuropathy, including the causes, symptoms, and ways to avoid and treat this well-known diabetes complication.

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Home / Living with Diabetes / What is Diabetic Neuropathy?

Most people living with type 1 or 2 diabetes are familiar with the complications associated with these diseases—including diabetic neuropathy, a form of nerve damage. If you have diabetes, there’s a good chance you’ll find yourself dealing with this complication at some point in your life. Based on information from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, 50 percent of all people with diabetes might also suffer from peripheral neuropathy.

The good news is that you can reduce your nerve damage risk with some applied knowledge. Here, you’ll find the information you need about the causes and symptoms of diabetic neuropathy—and ways to avoid and treat this well-known diabetes complication.

What Are the Five Main Symptoms of Diabetic Neuropathy?

People with diabetes can suffer from multiple types of neuropathy, the most common of which is peripheral symmetric neuropathy (or “peripheral neuropathy” for short). This complication affects the hands and feet, and it’s what most people think of when they hear the phrase “diabetic neuropathy.”

Are you wondering whether or not you have peripheral neuropathy? If so, keep an eye out for the five main symptoms of this condition:

  1. Unusual sensations. Unexpected tingling, burning, pain, and numbness are all closely associated with peripheral neuropathy. These feelings typically emerge in the fingers or toes before continuing upwards into the arms or legs.
  2. A loss of muscle tone. When your muscles lose their nerve connections, they can weaken and even shrink.
  3. Reduced physical sensations. If you have peripheral neuropathy, you may be unable to feel pain, heat, or cold in the areas this condition affects.
  4. Balance issues. Your nerves play an essential role in maintaining your sense of balance—meaning nerve damage can easily lead to balance problems.
  5. Charcot’s joint. This symptom involves the breakdown of a joint due to nerve problems. Joints in the feet are particularly susceptible to Charcot’s joint.

Even though peripheral neuropathy is seen more often than other forms of diabetic neuropathy, it’s not the only neuropathy type that should be on your radar. Here’s what you need to know about:

Autonomic Neuropathy

Unlike peripheral neuropathy, autonomic neuropathy tends to impact the stomach and other parts of the digestive system. Additional body parts that can be affected by autonomic neuropathy include the urinary system, blood vessels, and sex organs.

Noteworthy symptoms of autonomic neuropathy include:

  • Bloating and heartburn
  • Nausea
  • Constipation and diarrhea
  • Hypoglycemic unawareness (a condition where people do not notice their low blood sugar levels)
  • Feeling full after consuming minimal amounts of food
  • Low blood pressure
  • Bladder problems
  • Sexual dysfunction

Proximal Neuropathy

The most prominent sign of proximal neuropathy is pain in lower body parts such as the buttocks, thighs, and hips. Typically, this pain is localized to one side of the body. People with proximal neuropathy can also develop weakness in their legs.

Focal Neuropathy

Focal neuropathy often appears out of nowhere, affects specific nerves, and causes a wide range of symptoms. More specifically, this type of neuropathy is associated with:

  • Double vision
  • Eye pain
  • Severe pain, including chest and belly pain
  • Bell’s palsy (a form of paralysis affecting one half of the face)

What Triggers Diabetic Neuropathy?

While there are many different kinds of diabetic neuropathy out there, they share a common cause. As is the case for many other diabetes complications, neuropathy is triggered by high blood sugar levels over an extended period.

But while elevated blood sugar is the main reason why people with diabetes develop neuropathy, your glucose levels don’t exist in a vacuum. Other factors that can contribute to neuropathy include:

  • Blood vessel damage as a result of high cholesterol levels
  • Mechanical injury (for example, damage resulting from carpal tunnel syndrome)
  • Lifestyle factors, including alcohol and tobacco use

Insufficient amounts of vitamin B12 can also play a role in the development of neuropathy. Unfortunately, metformin (a standard diabetes medication) can lower your vitamin B12 levels. If you’re concerned about this or any other potential vitamin deficiencies, ask your doctor for a blood test.

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Can Diabetic Neuropathy Go Away?

If you have peripheral neuropathy, it’s crucial to understand that this condition can’t be reversed or cured. However, you can take a few steps to slow its progression—most importantly, keeping your blood glucose levels under control.

Regular exercise is a great way to treat peripheral neuropathy, and the same is true for quitting smoking (if applicable). Meanwhile, you can treat individual neuropathy symptoms with medications and lifestyle changes. 

Intriguingly, different rules apply for focal and proximal neuropathy. While focal neuropathy is difficult to predict (and can cause excruciating pain), it can also improve without treatment a few weeks or months after it appears. Meanwhile, diabetes patients tend to recover from proximal neuropathy a few years after being diagnosed with this complication.

How to Prevent This Condition

As you might expect, the single most effective way to lower your risk of diabetic neuropathy is to make sure your blood sugar is under control. To improve your blood glucose levels, make a point of:

  • Regularly checking your blood sugar. “Standard” blood sugar targets are 80-130 mg/dL before eating and under 180 mg/dL two hours after a meal. However, your ideal blood glucose levels might be different—ask your healthcare team for guidance.
  • Creating (and following) a diabetes diet. These diets should emphasize fresh vegetables and fruits, lean protein sources, and whole grains while minimizing fats, simple carbohydrates, and excess sodium.
  • Getting active. For people with diabetes, just 30 minutes of moderate exercise five days a week can make blood glucose more manageable. (However, you shouldn’t work out if you have ketones in your urine—doing so could actually increase your blood sugar.)
  • Following your doctor’s orders. If your healthcare provider has instructed you to take insulin or other medications for diabetes, be sure to follow their instructions to the letter.

Differences of Diabetic Neuropathy in Men and Women

Finally, there are some noteworthy sex-based differences in the onset and symptoms of diabetic neuropathy. According to one study, men living with diabetic neuropathy typically develop this complication at 63 years of age. That isn’t the case for women dealing with the same complication; they tend to develop diabetic neuropathy four years later at the age of 67.

Since autonomic neuropathy can affect the sex organs, its symptoms manifest differently in men and women. Male diabetes patients dealing with this form of neuropathy may have trouble having or maintaining erections, as well as reduced ejaculations. Meanwhile, women with diabetes might notice lower levels of vaginal lubrication or few/no orgasms due to autonomic neuropathy.

Learn More About Living a Healthy Lifestyle

Diabetic neuropathy is one of the most common diabetes complications, but that doesn’t make it an inevitability. Whether you’ve already been diagnosed with this condition or you’re trying to reduce your neuropathy risk, a few basic lifestyle changes can go a long way toward helping you live your best life and stay as healthy as possible.

While your first source of diabetes-related advice should always be your healthcare team, US MED can also help you learn more about healthy living with diabetes. We’re proud to maintain the internet’s leading database of diabetes information, which features articles about leading diabetes products and tips on healthy diabetes management strategies. And if you need testing supplies, insulin, or any other diabetes supplies, look no further than our online shop!

Shirley DeLeon Certified Diabetes Care & Education Specialist

Medical Review by Shirley DeLeon, Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist

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