If you have diabetes, chances are good that you already have some form of nerve pain or nerve damage, called diabetic neuropathy. “People with diabetes have about a 60% chance of getting neuropathy of any kind,” says Dace L. Trence, MD, an endocrinologist and director of the Diabetes Care Center at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle. “It’s probably an equal risk of getting neuropathy with type 1 and type 2 diabetes.”
You may have tingling, pain, or numbness in your feet and hands — common signs of the diabetic nerve damage called peripheral neuropathy. Or you may have damage to the nerves that send signals to your heart, stomach, bladder, or sex organs, called autonomic neuropathy. Nerve damage can also be “silent,” meaning you have no symptoms at all.
Sometimes, nerve damage starts even before a person is diagnosed with diabetes, Trance tells WebMD. “Even somebody with prediabetes may have neuropathy,” she says. As many as 57 million Americans have prediabetes — a condition where blood sugar levels are abnormally high, but not high enough to qualify as diabetes — says the American Diabetes Association (ADA). Add to that the nearly 24 million Americans already coping with full diabetes, and you can see how common nerve pain may be.
The good news? Many of the risk factors for diabetic neuropathy are under your control. So while you may not be able to prevent nerve pain and damage completely, you may be able to help slow it down. You can reduce your risk of nerve damage and other diabetes complications by keeping your blood sugars under tight control, says the National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse (NDIC).
Trence agrees. “The better the blood sugar control,” she says, “the less likely neuropathy is to progress.” A healthy lifestyle helps lower your risk of heart disease, stroke, and other diabetes complications, as well. So know your risk for complications, and work to control the ones you can control.
Are You at Risk for Diabetic Neuropathy?
1. You Have High Blood Sugar.
The risk: Who are the people at highest risk of nerve pain and damage from diabetes? Those who have trouble controlling their blood sugar.
What you can do: Sometimes glucose control is about mind over matter: you may simply need a little help staying motivated, sticking to your exercise program, or learning how to prepare more varied, tasty, healthy meals. But if you’re “doing everything right” and still have high glucose levels, you may need to change your plan and start or adjust medications to help better manage your blood sugars.
2. You’ve Had Diabetes for Many Years.
The risk: Nerve pain and damage is more common in people who have had diabetes for more than 25 years.
What you can do: Do your best to monitor your blood sugar at home as often as advised by your doctor. The NDIC also advises having the A1c test, a blood test that measures your average blood glucose control over the previous 2 to 3 months, at least twice a year. Trence advises taking the A1c more often as an extra measure of control. “I think most of us believe it should be done every 3 to 4 months,” she says. “It can vary, but we need to keep on top of things, and it’s such a powerful piece of information to have to complement the patient’s own blood sugars.”
3. You’re Overweight.
The risk: Being overweight is double trouble for people with diabetes. It puts you at higher risk of diabetic nerve damage — and higher risk of deadly diabetes complications like heart attack and stroke.
What you can do: Losing weight is hard for everyone, since meals are loaded with emotional meaning, well-being, satisfaction — or frustration. So if you’re overweight, be patient — but consistent — with yourself. Losing even a few extra pounds can be a big boost to your health, says the ADA. You really can control this risk with a balanced diet and exercise plan designed for slow, safe weight loss. And losing weight means less pressure on those tender feet if you already have diabetic nerve pain.
4. You’re Off-Target With Your Blood Fats.
The risk: The wrong levels of fats in your blood put you at higher risk of diabetic neuropathy. Often, people with diabetes have too-high levels of the blood fat called triglycerides, says the ADA. To make matters worse, an elevated LDL (“bad cholesterol”) can increase the risk of a heart attack. A grim truth: 65% of deaths in people with diabetes will be due to a heart attack or stroke, according the ADA.
What you can do: Find out your numbers, if you’re not sure. Have your cholesterol checked at least once a year, and aim for these target levels, advises the ADA:
LDL cholesterol: below 100 mg/dL HDL cholesterol: above 40 mg/dL for men above 50 mg/dL for women Triglycerides: below 150 mg/dL
Keep in mind that these are general guidelines; check with your doctor to see if your target levels are different, given your medical condition.
5. You Smoke.
The risk: Smokers are at greater risk of nerve damage from diabetes. And as you no doubt know, smoking has been linked to heart disease for years.
What you can do: You really can quit, even if you’ve been a longtime smoker. And it’s never too late: Even if you’ve smoked for years, you’ll do yourself a world a good if you quit. These days, you’ll find smoking cessation classes, groups, and resources everywhere. Set a quit date, commit yourself, and ask your friends, family, colleagues, and your doctor for support.
6. You Drink a Lot of Alcohol.
The risk: Alcohol can seriously affect blood sugar levels. Even more sobering? Alcohol can raise your level of unhealthy blood fats called triglycerides.
What you can do: The ADA and NDIC both advise cutting down on drinking to help prevent — or at least try to control — diabetic nerve damage. If you already have nerve pain, ask your doctor whether you should have any alcohol at all. If you’re living with diabetes, you may decide to cut out drinking entirely. The ADA suggests no more than 2 drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women.
So, quick review: Your blood sugar, weight, blood fats like triglycerides, smoking, and drinking. That’s five risk factors for diabetic neuropathy that are under your control. Not bad. Now if medicine can just come up with a “cure” for aging …