November is important to podiatrists for two major reasons. First, it is National Diabetes Month, which is a time to reflect on how we treat the 11.3% of the United States population that has the chronic disease. Second, it is Thanksgiving, which is when podiatrists are often asked for professional diagnoses by extended family members during dinner.
The American Podiatric Medical Association, our national organization, has chosen to spend this month calling for more attention to a painful diabetic condition known as peripheral neuropathy.
Maybe you are one of the 28.7 million Americans who has been diagnosed with diabetes. Maybe you are one of the 8.5 million who has diabetes and doesn’t know it. Or maybe your friend or loved one has diabetes, and you would like to know more about their condition so you can better empathize with them. Whoever you are, we hope you’ll observe National Diabetes Month by learning why peripheral neuropathy matters, what causes it, and how it can be prevented.
Why Is Diabetic Peripheral Neuropathy Important?
Despite what its name implies, peripheral neuropathy is central to the practice of treating diabetic patients. As a condition which affects around half of people who have diabetes, there are nearly as many cases of it as there are people living in New York State.
Peripheral neuropathy affects the feet and legs before spreading to the hands and arms. It can include symptoms of numbness, tingling, burning, muscle weakness, and increased sensitivity to touch. Peripheral neuropathy can also lead to more serious foot conditions such as infections, ulcers, and joint and bone damage.
“… before having these pains, I had several friends … As for now … social activities are no longer more.” These words, which were spoken by a 57-year-old nurse, demonstrate why peripheral neuropathy is so important: it causes many people pain and stops them from enjoying their lives. It can also make working impossible, which is why people who have it often receive disability benefits.
What Causes Diabetic Peripheral Neuropathy?
Peripheral neuropathy is nerve damage caused by high blood sugar. Hyperglycemia doesn’t damage nerves directly – but it does damage the small blood vessels which nourish and sustain nerve cells.
The first nerves affected by hyperglycemia are the ones farthest from the spinal cord, including those running down the legs and arms. These are the peripheral nerves, which lie outside the central nervous system where they control voluntary and involuntary body functions and relay information to the brain.
The reasons why hyperglycemia damages the peripheral nervous system first are extremely complex. There are over 100 recognized types of peripheral neuropathy, and hyperglycemia can also damage autonomic, proximal and focal nerves in addition to peripheral ones. But if you only need a quick takeaway, know this: sustained high blood sugar levels can irreversibly damage the nerves leading to the hands and feet, causing pain and physical disability as a result.
How Can You Prevent Diabetic Peripheral Neuropathy?
Not all types of diabetes are preventable, although type 2 diabetes largely is. If you wish to avoid getting peripheral neuropathy, take these simple steps to avoid getting diabetes in the first place:
- Do not smoke
- Eat a healthy diet
- Drink in moderation
- Keep your weight under control
If you are already living with diabetes, then you can prevent or delay nerve damage by following your doctor’s advice as closely as possible. That would include keeping your blood sugar within specific target ranges, maintaining your blood pressure below a certain threshold, and taking any medications you are prescribed. You can also reduce your risk of peripheral neuropathy by following the same tips for preventing diabetes.
There is no known cure for peripheral neuropathy. Treatment can only slow its progression, reduce the severity of its symptoms, and possibly restore function to the feet and hands. In addition to managing blood sugar levels, treatment for peripheral neuropathy typically includes prescription medications, specialist care, and adopting a healthier lifestyle.
If you have diabetes and are experiencing discomfort in your feet, then a podiatrist can help you live with less pain and greater mobility. If you need diabetic foot care in the Twin Cities, then we encourage you to contact Twin Cities Foot & Ankle Clinic in Golden Valley, MN today.