How Diabetes Can Affect Your Joints

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 37.3 million people in the United States — a little over 11% of the population — have diabetes. Defined as a metabolic disorder, diabetes affects how your body uses glucose (sugar) for energy, per Medical News Today. Glucose is the primary source of energy for your body's cells, and insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas, helps glucose enter your cells to be used as energy.

In people with diabetes, their bodies either do not produce enough insulin due to an autoimmune condition, as is the case with type 1 diabetes, or their bodies cannot use insulin effectively, as can happen with type 2 diabetes. This leads to high levels of sugar in the bloodstream, which, if left untreated, can cause serious health problems. Diabetes is commonly associated with complications such as nerve damage, kidney problems, and cardiovascular disease. It can also significantly impact joint health.

The connection between diabetes and joint health

Medical experts are not entirely sure why joint problems tend to occur in those with diabetes, but nerve damage, obesity, and arterial disease — which occurs when arteries are not wide enough to allow for proper blood flow — are possible factors, per the Mayo Clinic. One of the most common joint complications associated with type 2 diabetes is osteoarthritis. This condition occurs usually due to obesity, when the protective cartilage that cushions joints begins to break down, leading to pain, stiffness, and decreased mobility.

Diabetes is also linked to rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disorder that causes joint inflammation and damage, per Medical News Today. The reason behind this link is not fully understood but if you have one autoimmune condition, it increases your risk of developing another one, which is why those with type 1 diabetes may have a higher chance of developing rheumatoid arthritis. 

According to the American Diabetes Association, another joint complication associated with diabetes is frozen shoulder. Frozen shoulder occurs when the connective tissue surrounding the joint becomes thickened and tight, making it painful and difficult to move the shoulder. People with diabetes are at a higher risk of developing frozen shoulder, particularly if their blood sugar levels are poorly controlled.

How to protect your joints when you have diabetes

If you experience joint pain, swelling, or stiffness, it's important to talk with your doctor. Early diagnosis and treatment of joint problems can prevent them from getting worse and reduce the risk of long-term joint damage. Your doctor can recommend appropriate treatment options for your specific condition. These might include physical therapy, medications, lifestyle changes, or surgery, according to the Mayo Clinic.

For those with type 2 diabetes in particular, maintaining a healthy weight is crucial for joint health. Being overweight or obese puts extra pressure on your joints, leading to potential mobility problems down the road. Managing your blood sugar is also key in protecting your joints and supporting your overall health. Regular physical activity is also essential for good joint health. While weight-bearing exercises and walking are recommended, it is important to talk to your doctor before starting any new exercise regimen.