What is diabetic neuropathy?
You have 3 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.
What are the 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
- not being able to feel sores or cuts
- sleep problems
- bloating and digestion
- heat intolerance
- problems with walking
- dry skin
If you suspect you might have diabetes, talk to your doctor or call the National Diabetes Services Scheme (NDSS) Helpline on 1800 637 700.
CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use our diabetes symptoms Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.
What causes diabetic neuropathy?
Having high levels of sugar in the blood for a long time increases the risk of damage to the nerves. The worse the diabetes is controlled, the higher the risk. High levels of triglycerides, a type of fat found in the blood, can also cause nerve damage.
Other conditions can play a part, including:
- high blood pressure
- vitamin B deficiency
- alcohol abuse
- kidney disease or liver disease
- some medicines, including some drugs used against cancer
The longer you have had diabetes, the more likely you are to develop diabetic neuropathy.
How is diabetic neuropathy diagnosed?
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.
ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use our Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.
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.
You can also visit a podiatrist (up to 5 visits a year are subsidised for people living with diabetes). They will give you advice on the best shoes and socks to help your feet.
Resources and support
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 & ACT website.
Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.
Last reviewed: December 2019