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HealthInfo Waitaha Canterbury

Diabetic nerve damage (neuropathy)

Whakamōtī akaaka mate huka

Diabetes can damage the nerves that travel between your spinal cord and your muscles, skin and other parts of your body. High blood glucose (sugar) levels change the chemicals in the nerves or damage the blood vessels that supply oxygen to the nerves.

These changes can happen very slowly, and you may not notice them.

Your feet are most commonly affected. That is why it is essential that you have a foot screening and assessment by your general practice team or podiatrist every year. You can then agree on a treatment plan to suit your needs.

Keep your blood glucose levels under control to reduce your risk of getting neuropathy.

Types of diabetic neuropathy

The three main types of neuropathy are sensory, motor and autonomic. These can cause different symptoms, depending on the affected body part.

Sensory neuropathy

This is the most common type. It usually affects nerves in your feet and legs but can sometimes affect nerves in your hands and arms.

Sensory neuropathy can cause a feeling of numbness, tingling or pins and needles. Some people develop a feeling as if they are walking over sharp stones.

Neuropathy is sometimes called painful neuropathy because it may also cause:

You may not notice any symptoms but still have signs of sensory neuropathy when your feet are tested. This lack of sensation can sometimes lead to problems with foot ulcers.

Motor neuropathy

This is less common. It might cause weak muscles, especially in your legs. It can alter the shape of your feet and cause problems with shoes. Both of these might lead to problems with walking.

Autonomic neuropathy

This affects the nerves that control internal organs. The symptoms depend on where the problem lies.

You could have:

Treating diabetic neuropathy

Several different tablets and creams are available for this. Some will work better for some people than others.

It's important to tell your doctor if your medication is not working or is causing side effects. Your doctor may refer you to the Diabetes Service or to the Pain Clinic for other forms of treatment.

Self‑care for diabetic neuropathy

Look after your feet. For more information, see Self-care for your feet.

If you have reduced feeling in your feet, you're at a high risk for foot problems, including ulcers. You'll need foot checks from a podiatrist at least every year.

Keep your blood glucose levels under control to stop your diabetic neuropathy getting worse.

Do not smoke.

Eat well and keep physically active.

If you find a problem with your feet, contact your podiatrist, general practice team or after-hours clinic for advice as soon as possible.

Written by Podiatrist Special Interest Group. Adapted by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed November 2022.


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