High blood sugar levels and your genes are among the main factors that can cause nerve damage in your hands, feet, and internal organs.

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Diabetic neuropathy is a serious complication of diabetes. It can lead to pain or numbness in your hands or feet or affect the function of various internal organs.

It’s not always clear why someone with diabetes develops diabetic neuropathy. Several factors can increase your likelihood, but effectively managing your diabetes and cardiovascular health can help you lower it.

Learn more about diabetic neuropathy.

An estimated 50% of people with diabetes develop diabetic neuropathy, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Although some people with diabetes don’t have diabetic neuropathy, they must still take precautions to lower their likelihood of developing this painful, life changing condition.

Among the main causes of diabetic neuropathy are:

High blood sugar

You can have diabetes that’s well controlled with medications and dietary and lifestyle changes. But if you don’t manage your diabetes well, extended periods of high blood sugar (glucose) in your bloodstream could cause diabetic neuropathy.

Over time, the excess sugar in your blood can harm the small arteries that supply blood to your nerves. As a result, your nerves can miss out on a steady supply of oxygen and nutrients, which they need to function normally.

A 2019 study suggests that the longer a person has unusually elevated blood sugar levels and the older they get, the more likely it is that they’ll develop diabetic neuropathy.

High triglycerides

Triglycerides are a type of fat, similar to cholesterol, that circulate in the bloodstream. As with excess glucose, unusually high levels of triglycerides can eventually damage the small blood vessels in the nerves.

Genetics

Inheriting certain gene variants may increase the likelihood of diabetic neuropathy in some people with diabetes. A 2019 study suggests that several gene variants, including MTHFR 1298A/C and ACE I>D, are associated with developing diabetic neuropathy.

For people who have diabetes, additional factors that may increase the likelihood of diabetic neuropathy include:

The most important thing you can do to prevent diabetic neuropathy is to avoid developing diabetes in the first place.

If you already have a diagnosis of diabetes, you can prevent diabetic neuropathy and other complications — including diabetic retinopathy, which is a leading cause of vision loss in people with diabetes — by keeping your blood sugar levels within a healthy range.

By avoiding long periods of elevated blood sugar levels, you can minimize the harm to your blood vessels.

A 2021 study suggests that taking medications to lower your cholesterol and triglyceride levels may help prevent the onset of diabetic neuropathy or slow the progression of diabetic neuropathy in people who already have it.

The quality of life for someone with diabetic neuropathy may be low. Only about 1 in 3 people with the condition achieve satisfactory pain control.

To have the best possible outcome with diabetic neuropathy, it’s vital that you manage your diabetes consistently. Oral and topical pain relievers are usually the mainstays of treating diabetic neuropathy. You may also find relief with acupuncture and other treatments.

If you have diabetes, it’s important to have a foot examination every year to check for blisters, sores, and other changes. If you can’t feel your feet due to numbness resulting from diabetic neuropathy, you may not notice such changes.

Being proactive about your diabetes control, as well as your cardiovascular and foot health, may help improve your outlook and prevent negative changes to your quality of life.

What are the warning signs of diabetic neuropathy?

Warning signs and early symptoms of diabetic neuropathy will vary from person to person, depending on which nerves their condition is affecting.

First, you may feel pain, tingling, or numbness in your feet, hands, or both. You may also notice that areas of your skin become especially sensitive, to the point where bedsheets or clothes become uncomfortable.

Other early symptoms can include digestive problems, such as constipation or changes in your urinary habits.

How do you fix diabetic neuropathy?

There’s currently no official cure for diabetic neuropathy, but it’s treatable by keeping your blood sugar levels in a healthy range and managing other risk factors, such as blood pressure, triglyceride levels, and alcohol consumption.

Is walking good for neuropathy?

Although diabetic neuropathy can cause foot pain and make walking difficult at times, walking at least a few times a week may actually help your symptoms.

Walking helps with weight and blood sugar management, improves circulation, and strengthens the muscles and ligaments in the feet and ankles. This may help you manage your symptoms.

Swimming can be equally helpful and may be less painful than walking.

Although diabetic retinopathy can affect anyone with diabetes, it’s mainly due to unmanaged blood sugar levels. If you have diabetes, make it a priority to consistently keep your blood sugar under control. This may require you to take medications, such as metformin, and make changes to your diet and physical activity levels.

If you can manage your blood sugar, you may be able to help prevent other diabetes complications, including heart, kidney, and eye problems.