7 of 10 people with diabetes suffer from some form of diabetic neuropathy. It is the most common complication of the disease. Neuropathy is a family of nerve disorders that affects every organ system including the feet, legs, arms and hands, digestive tract, heart, and sex organs. Some people with diabetic neuropathy have no symptoms; many others have symptoms such as pain, tingling, or numbness and loss of feeling in the hands, arms, feet, and legs. Depending on the affected nerves you can also have problems with your digestive system, urinary tract, blood vessels and heart. For some people, these symptoms are mild; for others, diabetic neuropathy can be painful, disabling or in extreme cases fatal.
Although people with diabetes can develop nerve problems at any time, the risk rises with age, glucose control and how long you’ve had diabetes. The highest rates of neuropathy are reported among people who have had diabetes for at least 25 years. Diabetic neuropathy seem to be more common in people who have poor glucose control, high cholesterol, high blood pressure or who are overweight.
Yet, you can often prevent diabetic neuropathy or slow its progress with tight blood glucose control and a healthy lifestyle.
What causes diabetic neuropathy?
The causes vary depending upon the type of diabetic neuropathy; though it is well documented that prolonged high glucose levels weakens the walls of the small blood vessels (capillaries) that supply the nerves with oxygen and nutrients. Glucose levels can also damage nerve fibers by interfering with the ability of the nerves to transmit signals.
Nerve damage is generally due to a combination of factors:
- Long duration of diabetes, high cholesterol, and possibly low levels of insulin
- Autoimmune issues that cause inflammation in nerves
- Physical injury to nerves, such as carpal tunnel syndrome
- Inherited traits that increase susceptibility to nerve disease
- Kidney disease may increase the toxins in the blood and contribute to nerve damage.
- Lifestyle factors, such as smoking or alcohol use