How to Manage Nerve Pain if You Have Diabetes
Do High Blood Sugar Levels Cause Neuropathy?
If you have diabetes, you know most treatment plans involve managing your blood sugar levels. When blood sugar levels get too high, people with diabetes may suffer a number of serious conditions — including cardiovascular disease, skin infections and nerve damage.
Diabetic neuropathy is a type of nerve damage caused by high blood sugar levels. It can lead to chronic pain and other severe health problems. According to Jennifer Reed, registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator with the Baptist Diabetes Education Center, it is essential to manage blood sugar levels to prevent neuropathy.
Diabetic Neuropathy Symptoms
Nearly 70% of people with diabetes experience nerve damage, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
“When you don’t control your diabetes, high blood sugar can actually injure the nerves throughout the body,” said Reed. “Typically, nerve damage starts in the feet, but it may affect the legs, hands, eyes and heart.”
Patients with damaged nerves experience a variety of symptoms, including numbness, tingling and burning or stabbing pain. Some patients with diabetic neuropathy can’t feel pain or pressure. This can be dangerous because a lack of sensation in the feet can mask cuts, blisters or dangerous infections.
“Neuropathy is the reason why diabetic amputations happen,” said Reed. “To reduce the risk of amputation, people with diabetes should see a podiatrist once a year. Your general practitioner also checks for signs of neuropathy each time they visit with you. However, if you start to feel tingling, numbness or a lack of sensation in your feet, it’s important to see a podiatrist.”
Neuropathy Prevention and Treatment
Unfortunately, diabetic neuropathy is not reversable. Patients can work with their doctor to control symptoms, manage pain and increase their overall quality of life.
“Damage from high blood sugar is irreversible,” said Reed. “There is no turning back the clock. That’s why it’s important to consistently control your blood sugar to prevent nerve damage in the first place.”
Prescription pain medication and antidepressants can reduce the sensation of nerve pain, while nerve stimulation — a treatment placed on the skin or along the spinal cord — blocks pain receptors from being sent to the brain.
“Some patients find relief by taking 600 milligrams of the supplement alpha lipoic acid a day,” said Reed. “Supplements and pain medication help alleviate some symptoms, but diabetes management is absolutely key.”
At the Baptist Diabetes Education Center, neuropathy is part of diabetes education. Patients with diabetes learn monitoring, coping and prevention tips. To participate in a diabetes management class, ask your doctor for a referral.
“We have a series of classes in our diabetes self-management program,” said Reed. “In our first class, we talk about short- and long-term diabetes complications — and neuropathy is a focus. The best advice is to control your blood sugar. We stress that with all patients who want to avoid chronic nerve pain.”