How to Make Your Diabetic Neuropathy Worse
Peripheral neuropathy is one of the most frustrating—and most dangerous—common complications of diabetes. We see a lot of diabetic neuropathy at our office. Unfortunately, many people never come and see us until the symptoms are severe and their lifestyles have been significantly affected by the disease. For those that do come see us in the early stages, they usually have one question in particular on their mind: “Is this going to get better or worse, doc?” That’s a complicated question, and the truth is that we don’t always know what’s going to happen. We do know, however, that with diabetic neuropathy, it probably will get worse, and the choices you make have a lot to do with it. Before we get into that, let’s start at the beginning.
What is diabetic peripheral neuropathy and why should I care?Have you ever gotten up after sitting cross-legged awhile and noticed a pins-and-needles sort of feeling in your feet—or maybe even complete numbness? That feeling is temporary, due to nerves that have been physically pinched or obstructed by the way you’re sitting. But if you have diabetic peripheral neuropathy, nerves may be more permanently blocked or damaged. In addition to that prickling feeling and numbness, neuropathy can produce all kinds of weird sensory problems, from heating, burning, and freezing pain to electric-like shocks. Damage to motor or autonomic nerves can even lead to symptoms like muscle weakness, poor coordination, bladder problems, increased sweating, and more. Because neuropathy blocks true pain sensations from reaching your brain and prevents you from being able to “trust” what your feet are telling you, you might not realize right away if your feet have been cut or injured. And because diabetes prevents those injuries from healing as fast as they should, you could easily wind up with an infected wound or severe deformity.
So I’m beginning to suspect I might have neuropathy. Will my symptoms keep getting worse?So let’s get back to the question we asked earlier. We already sort of gave away the answer, but we’ll flesh it out a little more for you.
- Unless you take early and immediate steps to treat it, it’ll probably get worse.
- Lifestyle choices that you make can significantly accelerate the progress of the disease.
How to Make Your Diabetic Neuropathy WorseHere’s a quick list of the biggest mistakes made by many who suffer from diabetic neuropathy. Consider it your step-by-step guide of what NOT to do:
You 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.
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 and activity is one of the best ways to control blood sugar, improve circulation (and thus the flow of nutrients) to the feet, combat obesity and high blood pressure—in other words, it powerfully counteracts most 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 you actually do want to keep it from getting worse, please stop in and 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.
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. What you have to realize is that 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.
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:
- PADnet vascular testing. This simple in-office test 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 to help you reduce pain associated with neuropathy.
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