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Diabetes and peripheral neuropathy

Peripheral neuropathy is nerve damage caused by chronically high blood sugar and diabetes. It leads to numbness, loss of sensation, and sometimes pain in your feet, legs or hands. Neuropathy linked with diabetes is also called diabetic polyneuropathy.  It is a most common complication of diabetes.

The NHS says the longer you have diabetes, the greater your chances are of developing diabetic polyneuropathy. It estimates that around half of all people who have had diabetes for 25 years or more have diabetic polyneuropathy.

Studies have shown that people with diabetes can reduce or delay their risk of developing nerve damage by keeping their blood sugar levels as close to normal as possible.

What causes peripheral neuropathy? Chronically high blood sugar levels damage nerves not only in your extremities but also in other parts of your body. These damaged nerves cannot effectively carry messages between the brain and other parts of the body.

This means you may not feel heat, cold or pain in your feet, legs or hands. If you get a cut or sore on your foot, you may not know it, which is why it's so important to inspect your feet daily. If a shoe doesn't fit properly, you could even develop a foot ulcer and not know it.

An infection that will not heal because of poor blood flow increases the risk of developing ulcers and can lead to amputation, even death.

This nerve damage shows itself differently in each person. Some people feel tingling, then later feel pain. Other people lose the feeling in fingers and toes - they have numbness. These changes happen slowly over a period of years, so you might not even notice it.

Because it happens as people get older, experts say they tend to ignore the little tingles or subtle loss of sensation that is occurring - the signs of nerve damage - and think it's just part of getting older.

There are treatments that can help slow the progression of this condition and limit the damage. Talk to your doctors about it as if you've got tingling now, in 10 years it can be more painful.

Symptoms of nerve damage

Numbness is the most common, troubling symptom of nerve damage. People who lose sensation are of special concern as ulcers on their feet may lead to amputations.

People describe the early symptoms of peripheral neuropathy in many ways:

  • Numbness
  • Tingling
  • Pins and needles
  • Prickling
  • Burning
  • Cold
  • Pinching
  • Buzzing
  • Sharp
  • Deep stabs.

Others describe sharp pain, cramps, tingling, prickling or a burning sensation, while others have exaggerated sensitivity to touch. 

The symptoms are often worse at night.

Be aware of these changes in how you feel:

  • Touch sensitivity. You may experience heightened sensitivity to touch, or a tingling or numbness in your toes, feet, legs or hands.
  • Muscle weakness. Chronically elevated blood sugars can also damage nerves that tell muscles how to move. This can lead to muscle weakness. You may have difficulty walking or getting up from a chair. You may have difficulty grabbing things or carrying things with your hands.
  • Balance problems. You may feel more unsteady than usual and uncoordinated when you walk. This occurs when the body adapts to changes brought on by muscle damage, or because of a lack of sensation in the feet.
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