If you’ve got diabetes, you know that your nerves can be damaged – they’re not like normal nerves. As a result, they don’t respond to the usual signals, and you get the symptoms associated with nerve damage.
It’s called diabetic neuropathy, and it affects about half of people who have type 1 or type 2 diabetes. Some people may not notice any symptoms at all, but it can cause a range of problems – pain, tingling, loss of sensation, numbness, altered sensation, or weakness.
Nerve damage caused by diabetes may be more prevalent than researchers realize. In fact, diabetes-related nerve damage may be more common than the damage caused by heart attacks, strokes, spinal cord injuries, or traumatic injuries to the head. People with diabetes experience more than just painful feet and numb fingers: they also experience more loss of sensation in the face, a condition called neuropathy.
Diabetes-related neuropathy typically begins as a small “pin prick” type of nerve damage. Then small areas of the skin start to feel numb. As the numbness expands, it can encompass larger areas of skin. The disease may eventually affect the heart, eyes, kidneys, bladder, and sexual organs.
Over time, nerve damage can affect the nerves that control bladder control and result in bladder damage. If nerve damage affects the nerves that control your heart, the heart muscle begins to work overtime, putting extra strain on the muscles. These damaged muscles often cause a condition called heart failure, a life-threatening problem that can be the result of diabetes-related nerve damage.
There’s no cure for nerve damage, but the longer you have diabetes and the more nerve damage you experience, the greater the risk that your diabetes will become very hard to control.
The nerves that control your organs are composed of millions of little wires called axons. These wires connect nerves that control the functions of your organs to the control centers in your brain.
In order for the nerves to work, they need an adequate amount of oxygen, glucose, salts, and water. When a person has diabetes, blood sugar levels can be too high or too low, depriving these nerves of the oxygen, glucose, and water they need.
Diabetes nerve damage happens in three ways. First, nerve damage can develop when your body doesn’t properly respond to the insulin you produce. Insulin is the hormone that helps glucose get into your cells, where your body uses it to produce energy. When you don’t produce enough insulin, sugar can collect in your blood. If your blood sugar is too high or too low for too long, nerves that supply muscles can be damaged.
Insulin resistance is another form of nerve damage. This occurs when cells aren’t properly able to use insulin. When that happens, glucose continues to collect in the blood. When the nerves that supply the bladder are damaged, a nerve condition called neuropathy can occur. Your brain will signal your bladder muscles to relax and let the urine drain out. If a nerve is damaged, nerves that control other functions can also be damaged, causing another type of nerve damage called autonomic neuropathy.