Neuropathy: A Painful Reality
Neuropathy is one of the complications of diabetes: over time, hyperglycemia ends up damaging nerves—particularly those in the lower extremities. This can then compromise the functioning of organs such as the digestive or renal system, the heart or the genitals.
Recognizing the problem and diagnosing it in time
The risk factors of neuropathy share much with those of diabetes:
- High blood glucose
- High triglyceride levels in the blood
- Excess weight
Your health care professional can test you for lower extremity neuropathy at your annual visit.
For type 1 diabetes, annual screening should begin five years after diagnosis or, for young children, five years after puberty.
It’s important to note that sometimes, people who are diagnosed with type 2 diabetes will already have a form of neuropathy. That’s why you should undergo screening when you receive the diagnosis and every year after that. Identifying the problem as soon as possible is crucial to slowing its progression.
With regard to neuropathy, as with every other diabetes-related issue, proper blood glucose management is paramount.
Different types of neuropathy
- Peripheral neuropathy
The most common type of neuropathy in people with diabetes attacks the peripheral nervous system, particularly the nerves in the lower extremities. The feet and legs are usually the affected areas, but the condition can sometimes target the arms, abdomen or back.
- Decrease or loss of sensitivity
- Tingling or burning sensation
Some people experience severe pain that disrupts their sleep and quality of life. Medication is sometimes required to soothe this pain.
Peripheral neuropathy greatly increases the risk of a normal foot injury leading to amputation. That’s why it’s so important to keep a close eye on your feet and take good care of them!
- Autonomic neuropathy
This type of neuropathy affects the autonomic nervous system, which controls the urinary system (notably, the bladder), the genitals and the digestive system.
Among the symptoms is gastroparesis, a condition in which the stomach empties more slowly, causing vomiting, gastroesophageal reflux or bloating. This wreaks havoc on your blood glucose and can trigger hypoglycemia before you can spot the signs.
If the circulatory system is affected, you may experience dizziness—especially when you get up quickly—quickened pulse or low blood pressure.
Autonomic neuropathy can affect the genitals, with effects such as erectile dysfunction, or the urinary system, which can lead to various bladder problems.
Other types of neuropathy
Specific areas can sometimes be damaged. For example, if your optic nerve is affected, your eyes may start having difficulty adjusting when you move from a dark place to a bright one or vice versa, or when you drive at night.
Note that other nerve-related conditions can also be linked to diabetes—carpal tunnel syndrome, for example.
In order to detect problems as early as possible, it’s essential that you pay attention to your body. Don’t ignore any symptoms, even if they seem harmless at first.
American Diabetes Association, “Neuropathy (Nerve Damage)”: http://www.diabetes.org/living-with-diabetes/complications/neuropathy/. Accessed March 6, 2017.
Diabetes Canada, “Nerve Damage (Diabetic Peripheral Neuropathy)”: https://www.diabetes.ca/diabetes-and-you/complications/nerve-damage-diabetic-peripheral-neuropathy. Accessed February 20, 2017.
Diabetes Québec, “Neuropathy”: http://www.diabete.qc.ca/en/understand-diabetes/all-about-diabetes/complications/neuropathy. Accessed February 20, 2017.
Mayo Clinic, “Diabetic neuropathy”: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/diabetic-neuropathy/basics/definition/con-20033336. Accessed March 6, 2017.
WebMD, “What Is Diabetic Neuropathy?”: https://www.webmd.com/diabetes/diabetes-neuropathy. Accessed March 6, 2017.