How Diabetes Can Affect Your Nerves

Struggling to manage your blood sugar when you have diabetes can have far-reaching effects. If your blood sugar is frequently high, it can cause damage to your organs, blood vessels, and nerves, and can lead to other life-threatening conditions (via WebMD).

Half of all those diagnosed with diabetes experience nerve damage, also known as diabetic neuropathy, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Damage to the nerves happens when blood sugar is too high for too long, which causes damage to the blood vessels. This restricts blood flow to the nerves and prevents them from sending signals to the rest of the body. Anyone with diabetes can experience nerve damage, but you're at higher risk if your blood sugar levels are difficult to control, if you are over the age of 40, have had diabetes for a long time, are overweight, or have high blood pressure or high cholesterol.

The different types of nerve damage and how they impact you

Depending on what nerves become damaged, your symptoms will vary (per Mayo Clinic). There are four different types of nerve damage. Peripheral neuropathy, the most common type, usually happens in the feet, legs, hands, and arms. You might experience numbness, decreased sensitivity to temperature changes or pain, tingling or burning, muscle weakness, sharp cramps, foot problems, or severe sensitivity to things touching you, such as bedsheets. Sometimes these symptoms are worse at night. 

In autonomic neuropathy, affected nerves can impact heart rate, blood pressure, the eyes, bladder, digestive system, and sex organs. Symptoms of this type of nerve damage include dizziness or fainting from blood pressure drops, difficulty swallowing, bowel or bladder problems, changes in sweating, digestive issues like nausea and loss of appetite, and difficulty in the eyes adjusting to distance or light.

Proximal neuropathy occurs in the nerves of the thighs, hips, legs, buttocks, or abdominal and chest area, often impacting just one side of the body. You might experience weak thigh muscles, chest pain, difficulty getting up from sitting, or severe buttock, hip, or thigh pain. If just one nerve is damaged, it's called mononeuropathy. Depending on which nerve is impacted, it may cause paralysis on one side of your face, numbness or weakness in the hands and fingers, pain in the shin, foot, or front of the thigh, or difficulty focusing your vision.

Keep your blood sugar levels stable to prevent nerve damage

Nerve damage can develop slowly, so catching it as soon as possible is key for treating symptoms and preventing more serious damage, according to the CDC. The best way to manage nerve pain and symptoms is by keeping your blood sugar levels as close as possible to the target range set by your doctor. Other ways you can prevent nerve damage, or delay it from worsening, is by keeping your blood pressure below 140/90 mm Hg, limiting your alcohol intake, getting regular exercise, maintaining healthy eating, quitting smoking, and taking your prescribed medications.

By going to your regularly scheduled medical appointments, you can help prevent any nerve damage from becoming serious. Make sure to contact your doctor right away if you have a cut on your foot that won't heal, feel dizzy or faint, experience burning, tingling, weakness, or pain in your extremities that get in the way of daily activities or your sleep, or experience changes to your urinary, sexual, or digestive function.