What is Neuropathy?

It is not known precisely what causes nerve damage (called neuropathy), but it is known that high levels of glucose in the blood are linked to neuropathy. It's likely it is connected to damaged blood vessels. There are many nerves in the body that do a lot of different things, so there are also many types of neuropathy, depending on which nerves are damaged.

Peripheral Neuropathy (Distal Symmetric Neuropathy):

This is nerve damage in the extremities of the body, in the arms, hands, legs and feet. The feet and legs are most likely to be affected first, and worse.

It usually begins as insensitivity, and then as it progresses, becomes a burning feeling, then a painful feeling before going numb, coupled with a weakened circulation system.

The most dangerous aspect of peripheral neuropathy is that minor injuries can go unnoticed. This is an issue as unnoticed injuries can become infected or exacerbated. The weakening of the circulatory system can inhibit the body's ability to combat infection, so minor infections can spread and become major.

If infections occur and they spread to the bones, particularly in the feet, then the eventual result may have to be amputation.

Muscular weakness and a deterioration in reflexes are also likely symptoms.

Autonomic Neuropathy

Autonomic neuropathy is to do with high glucose levels damaging nerves that affect and control the automatic functions of the body such as the heart beat and the digestive system.

The heart and blood vessel system (the cardiovascular system) can be affected. This can cause light headedness after sudden movement, such as standing up, as the body is less able to adjust its heart rate and blood pressure.

Autonomic neuropathy can affect the nerves that regulate body temperature and sweat glands, and can lead to overactive or underactive sweating.

The most common symptom of digestive nerve damage is constipation, and a slow emptying of the stomach after eating, known as gastroparesis. Prolonged and especially bad gastroparesis can lead to a feeling of nausea and even actual vomiting.

The urinary system also relies on a lot of automatic functions, so people with autonomic neuropathy may experience issues here. An inability to fully empty the bladder can lead to an increase in the amount of times the sufferer needs to use the toilet and lead to infections as bacteria is given time to grow into the bladder and kidneys and cause urinary tract infections.

In addition, many of the nerves around this area are involved in the sexual organs, and so neuropathy can cause erectile dysfunction in men and possibly cause abnormal lubrication, while women may have a lower sexual response, lubrication and ability to orgasm.

As well as causing retinopathy, diabetes can affect the nerves in the eye that make it react to changing light levels, so people with diabetes may find themselves unable to see clearly or easily when light levels change suddenly.

Proximal neuropathy

This type of neuropathy specifically occurs in the hips, thighs and buttocks. It is an acute pain that often occurs alongside a great weakness in the legs that can affect a person's ability to stand up without aid.

This is most common in people with Type 2 diabetes, and especially in those who are older. Treatment for the pain is not unusual.

Focal Neuropathy

This type of neuropathy occurs suddenly and is when nerves which control singular muscles, such as the cheek fail to work. Most often it affects the head and torso.

It has many symptoms and ways to detect it, including:

  • Aching behind the eye
  • Impaired sight, doubled or unfocused vision.
  • Facial paralysis
  • Strong pain, particularly in the abdomen, and also in the shin and foot.

Pain from focal neuropathy will usually simply get better with time, although symptoms may persist to the point that painkillers are prescribed.

Prevention and Treatment:

The best way to prevent any type of neuropathy is by keeping good control of your blood sugar levels and by keeping it within the targets set by your doctor. As neuropathy is caused by high levels of glucose, it makes sense that keeping the glucose levels very low will prevent or delay neuropathy.

In addition, keeping to a healthy lifestyle with exercise to burn glucose and keep the body in good a condition, whilst maintaining a good glucose level will help to keep neuropathy at bay.

Good foot care is also crucial, so as to prevent the onset or progression of infection. Getting your feet checked by a professional regularly and protecting your feet from minor injuries will greatly help to prevent or solve the dangerous issues associated with peripheral neuropathy.

This can sound like too much and be a daunting concept to battle, but with a specific plan and a fixed routine, it should quickly become the norm and become easier.

Who is at risk of Neuropathy?

Both types of diabetes bring with them a high risk of eventually developing neuropathy. The longer a person has lived with the risk of high blood sugar levels, the more likely they are to develop nerve damage, so age is also a factor.

It is possible to develop neuropathy even if you do not have diabetes. Things such as excessive alcohol abuse, kidney failure, liver failure, side effects of certain medications and some autoimmune disorders can cause neuropathies of all types.

Other diabetic symptoms/complications to be aware of