Am I Making My Diabetic Neuropathy Worse?

Jun 21, 2018

Diabetic neuropathy, or peripheral neuropathy, is one of the most frustrating—and most dangerous—common complications of diabetes, and we see it a lot at our office. 

One of the most common questions we get about it from our patients is very simple, yet often very difficult to answer:

“Is this going to get better or worse, doc?”

We’ll start with the good news. For most people, peripheral neuropathy is something they do have the ability to manage (and even at least partially reverse) by making healthy lifestyle changes and seeking appropriate medical care when necessary. This is especially true if you seek our guidance as early as possible.

The flipside, though, is that if you don’t get your neuropathy under control, it will only get worse. The pain will get harder to control, and the damage to your nerves may become impossible to fully reverse.

Common Ways You May Be Making Your Neuropathy Worse

The lifestyle changes you need to make in order to slow or stop the progression of your neuropathy aren’t necessarily difficult, but you do need to go about them in a comprehensive and disciplined way. There are many potential pitfalls, and if you want to avoid them, you need to know what they are in the first place. The last thing you want is to unwittingly put your feet at risk simply because you didn’t know any better!

The rest of this blog post will go over some of the most common mistakes people make when managing their neuropathy, but first an important caveat: it is not a substitute for seeking a professional evaluation! If you are experiencing the symptoms of neuropathy and haven’t yet visited our office for a comprehensive evaluation and treatment plan, please contact us today.

Now, without further ado, here’s what to watch out for.

diabetic neuropathy

You often forget to check your sugar.

Uncontrolled blood sugar is poison for peripheral nerves. There’s really no other way to put it. Although it’s not the only mechanism contributing to neuropathy, it’s a big one.

As a result, managing your diabetes and keeping your blood sugar within a healthy range is really critical for preserving nerve health. If you frequently forget to test your sugar or don’t manage your diabetes well, your neuropathy is likely to get worse.

This process happens gradually over time, which is why so many people underestimate the danger until their nerves are in critical condition. Don’t let this be you!

You eat a poor diet.

We just talked about the relationship between sugar and neuropathy, so obviously eating a diet that’s high in refined sugars and carbohydrates will only accelerate the progression of nerve damage.

However, sugar isn’t the only dietary factor that contributes to neuropathy. High levels of cholesterol and triglycerides, as well as high blood pressure and obesity in general, are strongly linked with a higher overall risk of diabetic neuropathy and quickly worsening symptoms. All these factors are tied either directly or indirectly to what you eat.

Vitamin and nutritional deficiencies will also make neuropathy worse. B-complex vitamins, vitamin E, omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, calcium, thiamine, and niacin are among the most important nutrients that help nourish and sustain nerves.

You don’t get enough exercise.

Regular exercise is one of the best ways to control blood sugar, improve circulation to the feet, combat obesity and high blood pressure—in other words, it powerfully counteracts some of the most significant diabetic neuropathy risk factors.

But there’s a bit of a built-in negative feedback loop in regard to exercise and diabetic neuropathy.

In short, the worse your neuropathy symptoms are—and the more risk factors you have—the harder it is to exercise safely. For example, if you have no sensation in your feet, muscle weakness, brittle bones, etc., your risk of injuring yourself during activity is much higher.

This creates a vicious cycle where you’re too afraid to exercise, which makes your neuropathy worse, which makes it even harder to exercise safely, and so on.

If you have severe neuropathy and want to keep it from getting worse, please stop in, see your doctor and talk about what kinds of exercises would be the safest and most beneficial. Typically, at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity, low-impact exercises are recommended, but do talk with an expert before beginning any new exercise routine.

Checking Blood Sugar

You’re a smoker.

Smoking and using tobacco will almost certainly make your diabetic neuropathy worse.

Smoking, we’re sure you know, is associated with a wide variety of negative health effects, including lung cancer, stroke, and heart attack. One less publicized smoking complication? It is a major contributor to circulation problems in the feet.

Low circulation means less oxygen and nutrients get to the nerves, which accelerates the nerve damage already taking place. It also makes it harder for your body to heal injuries and wounds, so any injuries you do sustain are more dangerous.

You drink too much.

Alcohol abuse is another identified contributor to neuropathy, with or without diabetes in the picture.

On its own, alcohol can be directly toxic to nerves if you drink excessively over a relatively short period of time. However, this is not the only mechanism by which alcohol can accelerate neuropathy.

Your body has to expend a lot of nutrients in order to break down (metabolize) alcohol and remove it from your system. Many of these nutrients are the very same ones that are critical to nerve health, including B vitamins, magnesium, and calcium.

So if you drink excessively, your body has to allocate a lot of these nerve nutrients to processing alcohol, rather than nourishing your nerve cells. Essentially, alcohol abuse can directly create a nutritional deficiency, even among those whose diets would otherwise be sufficient to meet their needs.

You don’t see your foot doctor at least once per year.

This is not so much a cause of worsening neuropathy as it is a failure to prevent it, but it’s definitely worth mentioning here because it is a huge mistake that many people make.

One of the most insidious things about neuropathy is that, for some people, it can be almost asymptomatic—until it isn’t. By the time you even start to notice something might be wrong, it could already be really wrong, and you may have already missed your ideal window to stop and reverse it.

But when you check in regularly with a foot doctor who specializes in diabetic foot care and neuropathy screening, they can often help you detect the early signs of nerve damage faster than you could on your own, and that can buy you a lot of precious time to sidestep the most severe complications before it’s too late.

So What Can I Do for My Neuropathy?

All right.

Now that we’ve given you a nice “anti-roadmap” of what not to do if you have diabetic peripheral neuropathy, there’s a natural follow-up question: “What can I do?”

Well, in addition to doing the opposite of all the things we just talked about, you can also book a couple of medical appointments—one with your general practitioner, and one with the foot care team here at Foot & Ankle Center of Oklahoma.

We have a lot of experience dealing with diabetic neuropathy, and can offer diagnostic technologies and treatments including:

  • Vascular testing. A simple in-office test using an arterial doppler helps us detect early warning signs of poor circulation, which is strongly correlated with diabetes and neuropathy and can make your neuropathy worse.
  • Diabetic shoes. These shoes are designed to protect diabetic and neuropathic feet from accidental damage and injury. They feature a little extra depth to accommodate custom orthotics and other features to protect at-risk feet.
  • Pain relief treatments. We can offer a range of treatment options and medications in our online shop to help you reduce pain associated with neuropathy.

If necessary, we are happy to refer you to a nerve specialist for follow-up care.

To request an appointment with us, please give us a call at (405) 418-2676 or reach out to us online today!

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