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Diabetic Neuropathy (Nerve Problems)

Peripheral Neuropathy

Healthy feet: Nerve damage and numbness

Some people with diabetes have trouble feeling their feet, or they experience strange burning or tingling sensations. This results from damage to the long nerves that extend from the brain and spinal cord to various parts of the body. Damage to these long nerves, known as peripheral neuropathy, is the most commonly reported nerve damage among people with diabetes.

Nerve damage can't be reversed, but it can be prevented. Healthy lifestyle changes and careful control of blood glucose, blood pressure and cholesterol levels can slow the progression of nerve damage and may improve symptoms.

What does it feel like?

  • You may experience numbness, burning or a "pins and needles" feeling, usually in both feet.

  • Left untreated, nerve damage can progress to other parts of the body, often the hands.

  • Hands are almost never affected before the feet.

What should I know about peripheral neuropathy?

  • It's very common. About one-quarter of all people with diabetes have symptoms, but more sensitive nerve testing would probably reveal peripheral neuropathy in about 70 percent of all people with diabetes.

  • It's preventable. People are more likely to develop nerve damage if they've had diabetes for many years, smoke or have poorly controlled blood glucose, high blood pressure or high cholesterol.

  • Sometimes, it's diagnosed with prediabetes. Though not very common, some complain of numbness in their feet — a symptom of peripheral neuropathy — before diabetes has developed when glucose levels are high but are not yet in the diabetic range, a condition called prediabetes. 

  • It increases the likelihood of foot ulcers. Those who have trouble feeling their feet are less likely to notice injuries, callouses or ulcers until a serious infection develops. These people should check their feet for signs of injury.

  • There are several ways to diagnose it. A simple test involves seeing whether the people can feel vibrations or sharp sensations in the feet. A more sophisticated test, called a nerve conduction study, measures how well the nerves convey information from the brain to the feet.

  • The longest nerves in the human body extend all the way from the brain to the feet. Peripheral neuropathy almost always affects the long nerves first, starting in both feet and working up the body.

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