Information About Diabetic Peripheral Neuropathy

Diabetic peripheral neuropathy, the most common type of diabetic neuropathy, is a nerve disorder that can cause pain or loss of feeling in the toes, feet, legs, hands, and arms. Here's what you can do to prevent, treat, and feel better with this complication of diabetes.


What Is Diabetic Peripheral Neuropathy?

Peripheral neuropathy occurs when the nerves of the peripheral nervous system are damaged. These nerves run from the brain and spinal cord to the peripheral nervous system, which reaches all areas of the body, including arms, hands, legs, and feet.

Diabetic peripheral neuropathy affects these nerves:

Motor: Nerves that control how your muscles move and function.

Sensory: Nerves that receive sensations such as touch, heat, and pain. "These sensations can be either positive or negative," says Kent Holtorf, M.D., endocrinologist and medical director of the Holtorf Medical Group in Torrance, California. "Positive means you have hypersensation, or a lot of pain with a light touch. Or there can be negative, which is numbness, or a lack of feeling with light touch."

Autonomic: Nerves that control automatic functions such as blood pressure, heart rate, digestion, and bladder function.

Symptoms of Diabetic Peripheral Neuropathy

The first signs of peripheral neuropathy usually present themselves in the longest nerves of the body, those that reach your feet and hands. These signs can feel like numbness, prickling, or tingling in the toes or fingers. The nerve damage may spread through the feet and hands, and eventually through the rest of the body, to cause a burning, freezing, throbbing, or shooting pain that can often worsen at night.

"Many patients feel pressured for time on their visit to the doctor," says Ed Ross, M.D., director, Pain Management Center at Brigham & Women's Hospital in Boston. "And less-apparent symptoms are often not the first thing on their list, but it should be. Neuropathy affects everything in your body."

Other symptoms include:

  • A sensation of wearing an invisible glove or sock

  • Sharp, jabbing, and/or electriclike pain

  • Extreme sensitivity to touch

  • Difficulty sleeping because of foot or leg pain

  • Loss of balance or coordination

  • Extreme muscle weakness

  • Difficulty walking or moving the arms

  • Unusual sweating

  • Abnormalities in blood pressure

The symptoms you feel can either be constant or periodic. Some develop suddenly, while others progress more slowly. And because every patient experiences diabetic neuropathy differently, it's crucial for your health and for pain management to take note of these symptoms and seek treatment immediately.