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Diabetic neuropathy

3 min read

If you suffer from diabetes, your feet or hands might feel numb, tingly or painful. This could be a sign that you have developed diabetic neuropathy. It's important to know as much as possible about this condition.

What is diabetic neuropathy?

A neuropathy is a condition in which the nerves have become damaged. Diabetic neuropathy is a type of neuropathy in people either with type 1 or type 2 diabetes.

You have three types of nerves:

  • sensory nerves carry signals about touch, taste, sight, hearing and smell
  • motor nerves carry signals to help you move
  • autonomic nerves carry signals to help with balance, sweating, digestion and many of the things you do without thinking.

Diabetic neuropathy often affects sensory nerves to the feet and hands, but can also affect both the autonomic and motor nerves.

Symptoms of diabetic neuropathy

The most common symptoms of diabetic neuropathy are numbness, tingling, a burning sensation, aching, cramps and weakness. Most people find symptoms usually begin in their hands or feet. These symptoms may later spread to their arms and legs.

Diabetic neuropathy can also cause:

  • pain and discomfort in yours arms or legs, especially at night
  • sleep problems
  • bloating and digestion
  • heat intolerance
  • problems with walking. 

If you suspect you might have diabetes, talk to your doctor or call the Diabetes Australia Helpline on 1300 136 588.

Check your symptoms using healthdirect’s online Symptom Checker.

What causes diabetic neuropathy?

It seems that having high levels of sugar in the blood for a long time damages the nerves. High levels of triglycerides, a type of fat found in the blood, can also cause nerve damage.

Other conditions can play a part, including:

The longer you have had diabetes, the more likely you are to develop diabetic neuropathy.

Preventing diabetic neuropathy

Getting your blood sugar levels under control, and keeping them there, is the most effective way to prevent diabetic neuropathy.

Diagnosis of diabetic neuropathy

Your doctor will talk to you, examine you, and you will have some blood tests. They will look at your medical records, especially to check for blood sugar levels in the past. You might be referred to a neurologist, an endocrinologist or another health professional.

Prepare for your doctor's appointment by using healthdirect’s Question Builder tool.

Preventing and treating diabetic neuropathy

Whether you’re trying to prevent diabetic neuropathy, or trying to stop it getting worse, the most important thing to do is to control your blood sugar levels. That means:

  • sorting out any medical problems (with the help of your doctor if necessary)
  • following the right diet for you
  • exercising regularly
  • taking or using any medication prescribed
  • avoiding things that can cause problems, such as smoking and excessive drinking.

If you have diabetic neuropathy, discuss with your doctor or diabetes nurse how to protect your skin and deal with pain. The usual pain relief, such as paracetamol and ibuprofen, might not work with the pain of diabetic neuropathy. If so, talk to your doctor about other forms of pain relief.

More information

Read more about diabetes on the Diabetes Australia website.

Everyone with diabetes has to be careful about their feet. Read more on the Diabetes NSW website.

Last reviewed: November 2017

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