Diabetes and joint pain are considered to be independent conditions. Joint pain may be a response to an illness, injury, or arthritis. It can be chronic (long-term) or acute (short-term). Diabetes is caused by the body not using the hormone insulin correctly, or insufficient production of it, which affects blood sugar levels. What would a hormone and blood sugar-related condition have to do with joint health?
Diabetes is associated with widespread symptoms and complications. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 47 percent of people with arthritis also have diabetes. There is an undeniably strong link between the two conditions.
Diabetes can damage joints, a condition called diabetic arthropathy. Unlike pain caused by immediate trauma, the pain of arthropathy happens over time. Other symptoms include:
- thick skin
- changes in the feet
- painful shoulders
- carpal tunnel syndrome
A joint is the place where two bones come together. Once a joint wears down, the protection it provides is lost. Joint pain from diabetic arthropathy comes in different forms.
Charcot’s joint occurs when diabetic nerve damage causes a joint to break down. Also called neuropathic arthropathy, this condition is seen in the feet and ankles in people with diabetes. Nerve damage in the feet is common in diabetes, which may lead to Charcot’s joint. A loss of nerve function leads to numbness. People who walk on numb feet are more likely to twist and injure ligaments without knowing it. This places pressure on the joints, which can eventually cause them to wear down. Severe damage leads to deformities in the foot and other affected joints.
Bone deformities in Charcot’s joint may be prevented through early intervention. Signs of the condition include:
- painful joints
- swelling or redness
- area that is hot to the touch
- changes in the appearance of feet
If your doctor determines that your joint pain is related to diabetic Charcot’s joint, it’s important to limit use of the affected areas to prevent bone deformities. If you have numb feet, consider wearing orthotics for additional support.
Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common form of arthritis. It may be caused or aggravated by excess weight, which is a common problem in those with type 2 diabetes. Unlike Charcot’s joint, OA is not directly caused by diabetes. Instead, being overweight increases the risk of developing both type 2 diabetes and OA.
OA occurs when the cushioning between the joints (cartilage) wears down. This causes the bones to rub up against each other, and results in joint pain. While joint wear-and-tear is natural to some extent in older adults, excess weight speeds up the process. You may notice increasing difficulty in moving your limbs, as well as swelling at the joints. The hips and knees are the most commonly affected areas in OA.
The best way to treat OA is to manage your weight. Excess weight puts more pressure on the bones. It also makes diabetes harder to control, so losing extra pounds can not only alleviate chronic joint pain, it may ease other diabetes symptoms.
According to the Arthritis Foundation, losing 15 pounds may decrease knee pain by 50 percent. Regular exercise can do more than maintain weight. Physical movement also helps lubricate your joints. As a result, you may feel less pain. Your doctor may prescribe pain medications to use when joint discomfort from OA becomes unbearable. Surgery, such as knee replacement, may be required in severe cases.
Just as there are different types of diabetes, joint pain with arthritis comes in different forms. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an inflammatory condition caused by an autoimmune disease. While swelling and redness may be present, as in OA, RA is not caused by excess weight. In fact, the exact causes of RA are unknown. If you have a family history of autoimmune disease, then you may be at risk for RA.
Type 1 diabetes is also classified as an autoimmune disease, which explains the possible link between the two. The conditions also share inflammatory markers. Both RA and type 1 diabetes cause increased levels of interleukin-6 and C-reactive protein. Some arthritis medications can help decrease these levels and improve both conditions.
Pain and swelling are the primary characteristics of RA. Symptoms can come and go without warning. There is no cure for autoimmune diseases like RA, so the focus of treatment is to reduce inflammation that causes the symptoms. Newer RA drugs include:
- etanercept (Enbrel)
- adalimumab (Humira)
- infliximab (Remicade)
These three medications may be beneficial in lowering the risk of type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes has been associated with inflammation, which these drugs help manage. In one study, the risk for type 2 diabetes was lower for those on these medications, according to the Arthritis Foundation.
The key to beating diabetes-related joint pain is to spot it early. While these conditions can’t be cured, there are treatments available to help minimize pain and discomfort. Call your doctor if you’re experiencing swelling, redness, pain, or numbness in your feet and legs. These symptoms need to be tended to as soon as possible. If you have diabetes or believe you may be at risk, consider talking to your doctor about your personal risk factors for joint pain.