Diabetic Neuropathy
Diabetes Information Page

What are diabetes problems?

Too much sugar in the blood for a long time causes diabetes problems. This high blood sugar can damage many parts of the body, such as the eyes, heart, and nerves throughout the body. Diabetes problems can be scary, but there is a lot you can do to prevent them or slow them down.

How can diabetes hurt my nervous system?

Having high blood sugar for many years can damage the blood vessels that bring oxygen to some nerves. High blood sugar can also hurt the covering on the nerves. Damaged nerves may stop sending messages. Or they may send messages too slowly or at the wrong times.

Diabetic neuropathy (ne-ROP-uh-thee) is the medical name for damage to the nervous system from diabetes.

The nervous system has four main parts - central, peripheral, autonomic, and cranial. Diabetes can damage the peripheral, autonomic, and cranial nerves.

How can diabetes damage to the peripheral nerves affect me?

Peripheral nerves go to the arms, hands, legs, and feet. Damage to these nerves can make your arms, hands, legs, or feet feel numb. Also, you might not be able to feel pain, heat, or cold when you should. You can get special shoes that are made to fit softly around your sore feet or feet that have changed shape. These special shoes help protect your feet. Talk to your doctor about how and where to get these shoes.

How can diabetes damage to the autonomic nerves affect me?

Autonomic nerves help you know your blood sugar is low. Some people take diabetes medicines that can accidentally make their blood sugar too low. Damage to the autonomic nerves can make it hard for them to feel the symptoms of hypoglycemia (hy-po-gly-SEE-mce-uh), which is the medical name for low blood sugar. This kind of damage is more likely to happen if you have had diabetes for a long time. It can also happen if your blood sugar has been too low very often.

Autonomic nerves go to the stomach, intestines, and other parts of the digestive system. Damage to these nerves can make food pass through the digestive system too slowly or too quickly. Nerve problems can cause nausea (feeling sick to your stomach), vomiting, constipation, or diarrhea.

Autonomic nerves go to the heart. Damage to these nerves might make your heart beat faster or at different speeds.

Autonomic nerves go to the blood vessels that keep your blood pressure steady. Damage to these nerves makes your blood move too slowly to keep your blood pressure steady when you change position. When you go from lying down to standing up or when you exercise a lot, the sudden changes in blood pressure can make you dizzy.

How can diabetes damage to the cranial nerves affect me?

Cranial nerves go to the eye muscles. Damage to these nerves usually happens in one eye. The damaged eye does not move together with the healthy one, and you can have double vision. This problem happens all of a sudden and usually lasts for a short time. Your doctor might ask you to wear an eye patch on one eye for a while.

Cranial nerves go to the side of the face. Damage to these nerves usually happens to only one side of the face. This nerve damage causes that side of the face to hang lower or sag. Usually the lower eyelid and lips sag. This problem is called Bell's palsy. It happens all of a sudden and tends to correct itself.

How do I know if I have nerve damage?

If you have one or more of the problems mentioned here, you may have some nerve damage from diabetes. Tell your doctor about the problem. Ask your doctor what you can do to make the problem better and to stop it from getting worse.

For More Information

The National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke (NINDS) is part of the National Institutes of Health. To learn more about nervous system problems, write or call National Institutes of Health Neurological Institute at P.O. Box 580 1, Bethesda, MD 20824, (301) 496-575 1; or see www.ninds.nih.gov on the Internet.

Source: National Diabetes Education Clearinghouse, NIH Publication No. 00-4284, August 2OOO

Last updated June 3, 2002