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Updated 16 January 2017

How diabetes can affect your nerves

Nerve damage as a result of diabetes is referred to as diabetic neuropathy, and is a common complication of the disease.

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According to the International Diabetes Federation diabetics run the risk of developing serious health problems affecting the nerves, eyes, kidneys, heart and blood vessels. They also have a higher risk of developing infections.

It is important that diabetics maintain cholesterol, blood pressure and blood glucose at normal or close to normal levels in order to avoid the above problems. Uncontrolled diabetes can lead to lower limb amputation, kidney failure, blindness and cardiovascular disease. 

Diabetic neuropathy

Nerve damage as a result of diabetes is referred to as diabetic neuropathy and is a common complication of the disease. Neuropathy means damage to the nerves, something that prevents one from feeling sensations like pain. Consistently high blood sugar levels can damage the nerves in a number of ways, but the damage is mostly experienced as numbness, pain and weakness in the arms, hands, feet and legs.

Read: Eric Clapton: Nerve pain like 'electric shocks'

The pain caused by diabetes-related nerve damage usually isn’t severe and may be overlooked by the patient.     

There are four types of diabetic neuropathy:

  • Peripheral neuropathy causes pain or loss of feeling in the hands, arms, feet, and legs. 
  • Autonomic neuropathy can cause changes in digestion, bowel and bladder control, and erectile dysfunction. It can also affect the nerves that serve the heart and control blood pressure. 
  • Proximal neuropathy causes pain in the thighs and hips and weakness in the legs.
  • Focal neuropathy can affect any nerve in the body, leading to pain or weakness.

How does it happen?

Endocrine Web explains that there is still a lot uncertainty about exactly how elevated blood glucose levels affect the nerves. A long-term study published in 1993 clearly showed that neuropathy (and other complications) can be prevented by effective blood sugar control.   

One way this may happen is that high blood sugar damages the small blood vessels that lead to the nerves. Damaged blood vessels don’t supply the nerves with oxygen and other nutrients, which leads to nerve damage.

Other factors that may lead to the development of diabetic neuropathy are:

  • Age: Diabetic neuropathy develops over many years, which means that it will be more common in older people.    
  • Lifestyle choices like drinking alcohol and smoking tend to exacerbate the symptoms of neuropathy.
  • Nerve injury: Previously damaged nerves (whether through inflammation or a mechanical injury) may be more susceptible to developing diabetic neuropathy, which means they are unable to convey message to the brain as efficiently as they should.    

Read more:

A vegan diet may help with diabetes nerve pain

HIV-associated peripheral neuropathy (PN)

Better treatment slashes diabetes complications

 
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