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Diabetic neuropathy

Contents of this page:


Diabetes and nerve damage
Diabetes and nerve damage
Central nervous system
Central nervous system

Alternative Names    Return to top

Nerve damage - diabetic

Definition    Return to top

Diabetic neuropathy is a common complication of diabetes, in which nerves are damaged as a result of high blood sugar levels (hyperglycemia).

Causes    Return to top

People with diabetes commonly develop temporary or permanent damage to nerve tissue. Nerve injuries are caused by decreased blood flow and high blood sugar levels, and are more likely to develop if blood sugar levels are not well controlled.

Some people with diabetes will not develop nerve damage, while others may develop this condition early. On average, symptoms begin 10 to 20 years after the diabetes diagnosis. Approximately 50% of people with diabetes will eventually develop nerve damage.

Peripheral nerve injuries may affect nerves in the skull (cranial nerves) or nerves from the spinal column and their branches. This type of nerve injury (neuropathy) tends to develop in stages.

Autonomic neuropathies affect the nerves that regulate vital functions, including the heart muscle and smooth muscles.

Symptoms    Return to top

Digestive tract:

Legs and arms:

Other symptoms:

Note: Symptoms vary depending on the nerve(s) affected, and may include symptoms other than those listed. Symptoms usually develop gradually over years.

Exams and Tests    Return to top

Physical examination, including nervous system (neurological) and sensory tests, may diagnose neuropathies. A common early finding is the absence of ankle reflexes.

Health care providers often test for loss of sensation in the feet with a brush-like instrument called a monofilament.

Electrodiagnostic testing may be done.

Treatment    Return to top

The goals of treating diabetic neuropathy are to prevent the disease from getting worse and to reduce the symptoms of the disease.

Tight control of blood sugar (glucose) is important to prevent symptoms and problems from getting worse.

Medications may be used to reduce the symptoms in the feet, legs, and arms. These medications include:

Regular foot exams are important to identify small infections and prevent foot injuries from getting worse. If foot injuries go unnoticed for too long, amputation may be required.

Outlook (Prognosis)    Return to top

Treatment relieves pain and can control some symptoms, but the disease generally continues to get worse.

Possible Complications    Return to top

In addition, neuropathy may mask angina, the warning chest pain for heart disease and heart attack.

When to Contact a Medical Professional    Return to top

Call your health care provider if you develop symptoms of diabetic neuropathy.

Prevention    Return to top

Tight control of blood sugar levels may prevent neuropathy in many people with type 1 diabetes, and may reduce the severity of symptoms.

In addition, regular foot care can prevent a small infection from getting worse. This is why no appointment for diabetes care is complete without a thorough foot examination.

References    Return to top

Vinik AI. Diabetic neuropathies. Med Clin North Am. 2004; 88(4): 947-99.

Vardi M, Nini A. Phosphodiesterase inhibitors for erectile dysfunction in patients with diabetes mellitus. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2007; Jan 24(1):CD002187.

Wong MC, Chung JW, Wong TK. Effects of treatments for symptoms of painful diabetic neuropathy: systematic review. BMJ. 2007; 335:87.

Hunt D. American Diabetes Association (ADA). Standards of medical care in diabetes--2008. Diabetes Care. 2008;31:S12-S54.

Update Date: 8/20/2008

Updated by: A.D.A.M. Editorial Team: David Zieve, MD, MHA, Greg Juhn, MTPW, David R. Eltz. Previously reviewed by Elizabeth H. Holt, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor of Medicine, Section of Endocrinology and Metabolism, Yale University. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network (3/18/2008).

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