Diabetes can cause multiple problems in the body. High blood sugars can cause damage to nerves. Diabetic neuropathy occurs in up to 70% of diabetics, and is painful in up to 30%. There are four common types of diabetic neuropathy:
- Peripheral polyneuropathy
- Autonomic neuropathy
- Amyotrophy mimicking a radiculopathy
The small sensory pain fibers are the most commonly affected, causing pain in the feet and slowly progressing to the legs and often developing in the hands. Loss of sensation in the legs can lead to open wounds, infections, amputations, and sometimes even death.
Causes of Diabetic Neuropathy
The causes of diabetic neuropathies are all thought to start with high blood sugars. This is known to cause damage directly to the nerve, the insulation covering the nerves, and the blood vessels that provide nutrition. There is also thought to be an auto-immune factor that diabetes provokes our immune system to fight the body itself like a foreign organism and cause damage. Smoking and alcohol can also increase the likeliness of damage. Lastly, diabetes makes the nerves more sensitive to damage, thus injury can cause significant increase in overall damage to nerves.
Peripheral polyneuropathy is the most common type of damage seen in diabetes. It is noticed first affecting sensory nerves, but motor nerves can be equally damaged. People often first notice numbness in the feet and toes, and changes in temperature. Tingling, and burning is common, as well as pain and sensitivity even to the lightest of touches. Motor changes include weakness in the feet and legs and difficulty with walking and balance.
Autonomic neuropathy is the next most common diabetic neuropathy. The nerves that control the heart, bladder, stomach and intestines, sex organs, and eyes are from the autonomic nervous system. Loss of control of the bladder may be from damage to these nerves. In males, erectile dysfunction is a common issue. Stomach problems include slow emptying, constipation, and sometimes diarrhea. Heart problems include fluctuating blood pressures and heart rates.
Prevention & Treatment Options
Once diabetic neuropathies occur, they are often hard to manage and control, since the nerve damage is often permanent. Good blood sugar control is the most important aspect in reducing the incidence and severity. Painful neuropathies are best treated with neuropathic medications such as:
Narcotic/opioid medications are often only minimally helpful at best. In the worst cases, implantable pain control devices such as spinal cord stimulation and intrathecal pain pumps are useful. When pain is an ongoing problem, enlisting the help of an experience pain physician can be a lifesaver in symptom management.