Diabetic Neuropathy: What to Know from Head to Toe

Nerve damage from diabetes can affect your entire body. Recognize the symptoms and know what you can do to prevent it.


Diabetic Neuropathy: What to Know from Head to Toe

From head to toe, every part of the human body contains nerves. Nerves send signals throughout the body telling us when and how to react to triggers such as temperature, sound, and pain. They also stimulate muscle cells that allow us to move and keep our hearts beating. Despite the saying, nobody has nerves made of steel -- nerves can be damaged.

Neuropathy is the technical term for nerve disease. When nerve disease is caused by high blood glucose, it's called diabetic neuropathy.

Risk Factors

Diabetic neuropathy can affect anyone with diabetes, but it is more common in people with these risk factors:

  • had diabetes for 25 years or more

  • poorly controlled blood glucose

  • high blood pressure

  • overweight

  • high cholesterol

It's estimated that 60 - 70 percent of people with diabetes have some form of neuropathy, making it one of the most common complications of diabetes.

Diabetic Neuropathy Symptoms

The symptoms of diabetic neuropathy differ depending on where nerve damage is occurring in the body. From your head to your feet, here's what to look for.

The Head

What to look for:

  • Vision changes such as double vision, aching behind one eye, inability to focus, problems adjusting to changes in light.

  • Paralysis of one side of the face (called Bell's palsy) or facial drooping

  • Hearing problems including ringing or buzzing in the ear

The Torso

While diabetic neuropathy is most common in the limbs of the body, it can also affect the trunk. Nerves control movement of food into the intestinal tract, bladder function, and even sexual function, says Richard Hellman, M.D., former president of the board of directors for the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists (AACE).

What to look for:

  • dizziness or faintness

  • difficulty swallowing

  • chest pain or discomfort

  • unawareness of low blood glucose

  • constipation or diarrhea

  • gastroparesis (slowed stomach emptying)

  • nausea and vomiting

  • loss of bladder control

  • urinary tract infections

  • impotence

  • decreased sexual response

  • inability to regulate body temperature

The Arms

What to look for:

  • numbness and tingling, especially in the fingers

  • loss of sensitivity

  • extreme sensitivity to even the lightest touch

  • weakness

The Legs

What to look for:

  • sharp pain or cramps

  • loss of balance, possibly inability to stand

  • weakness

  • numbness or insensitivity

The Feet

"The longest nerve seems to be most effected," Hellman says. "The longest nerve goes down to the toes, so that's where you'll see symptoms first."

What to look for:

  • cuts, bruises, calluses, blisters, and sores, especially if you're not sure how they got there because that likely means you didn't feel it when it happened.

  • inability to lift the foot

  • numbness or insensitivity

  • pain or prickling sensations