Why Do People with Diabetes Need Foot Exams?

Medically reviewed by Daniel Murrell, MD on March 20, 2017Written by Natalie Silver on March 20, 2017

Overview

You must be vigilant in many areas of your health if you have diabetes. This includes daily foot exams in addition to monitoring your blood glucose levels, eating a healthy and balanced diet, taking prescribed medications, and staying active. Proper foot monitoring can reduce your chances of developing foot conditions that may result in serious complications. This involves daily self-exams and annual professional evaluations.

Why is a foot exam important?

Proper foot care for people with diabetes is vital to overall health. According to the Joslin Diabetes Center, 1 in 4 people with diabetes will develop a foot condition that requires intervention. It is important to monitor your feet on a daily basis. Report any changes in your feet to your doctor immediately to reduce the severity of the condition.

One condition that may lead to further complications in the feet is neuropathy. This is the result of nerve damage that causes difficulty or inability to feel your feet or other extremities. Neuropathy is common in diabetics because high blood sugar damages the nerve fibers in your body.

Foot problems related to neuropathy can result in foot injuries that you do not even realize you have. A study in the Journal of Family Practice reports that up to half of people who have sensory loss from neuropathy may have no symptoms at all. This can cause further foot damage.

Other serious foot conditions that may develop in those with diabetes include:

  • calluses
  • ulcers
  • infections
  • bone and joint pain
  • deformities
  • vascular disease
  • breakdown of skin
  • changes in skin temperature

Neglecting to care for your feet or seek intervention for a developing condition can lead to the worsening of symptoms and more serious treatments.

How to give yourself a foot exam

Those with diabetes must monitor your feet daily to maintain foot health. Basic aspects of a foot self-exam include looking for changes to the feet, such as:

  • cuts, cracks, blisters, or sores
  • infection
  • calluses
  • hammer toes or bunions
  • changes in foot color
  • changes in foot temperature
  • redness, tenderness, or swelling
  • ingrown toenails
  • changes to the size or shape of the foot

If you have difficulty seeing your feet, try using a mirror to help you examine them or ask a friend or loved one to help you. Daily foot monitoring can help to reduce more complicated conditions that may develop as a result of diabetes.

When should you see a doctor

Contact your doctor if you notice any changes to your feet. You should not treat abnormalities to your feet at home. Your doctor will evaluate the condition and conduct necessary tests to determine your diagnosis. Early diagnosis will reduce your risk of further complications.

Those with diabetes should also see their doctor annually for a preventative foot exam. During an annual examination, your doctor will:

Take your history

This will include information about your overall health. The doctor will also ask about your diabetes, including how you manage it and whether you’ve had any complications from it. Your doctor may inquire about your smoking habits because it can lead to further foot complications, such problems with circulation and nerve damage.

Conduct a physical exam

This can include:

  • a general review of the feet
  • a review of the skin of the feet
  • a review of the musculoskeletal components of the feet
  • a review of your vascular system and your feet
  • a review of the nerves in your feet

The results of these tests will help your doctor determine your risk for complications to the feet and develop a course of action.

Educate

Understanding the risks and possible outcomes from your foot exam may lead to a decrease in further complications. A study in The Journal of Family Practice found that those who did not understand their diabetes resulted in 90 percent of recurrent ulcers.

Treatment

Foot conditions caused by diabetes can range in severity. Prevention is the best defense for the treatment of foot conditions. This may not always be possible. Early detection of foot conditions will require less invasive treatment options. Your doctor may refer you to a specialist to determine your best treatment plan.

Serious foot conditions found early involving bone deformity or ulcers may be treated with a cast that your helps protect your foot so it can heal. Casts can help foot ulcers heal by distributing pressure on the foot. These casts will allow you to continue to walk as you are treated. Your doctor may also recommend a brace or specialized shoe to help your ulcers.

More serious ulcers may require surgical intervention. These ulcers are treated through the removal and cleaning of the affected area. Recovery can take several weeks or months.

Complications

Serious complications from diabetic foot conditions like ulcers may include amputation. This involves the removal of your toe, your foot, or even your leg if the condition cannot be treated in any other way.

Outlook

Managing your diabetes will reduce the chances that you develop serious foot conditions. Self-management includes:

  • monitoring your blood glucose
  • managing your diet
  • taking necessary medications
  • engaging in daily exercise
  • conducting daily foot exams

Amputations have gone down by more than 50 percent since the 1990s because of better diabetes management and foot care, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Tips for prevention

There are many ways you can prevent foot conditions if you have diabetes. Here are some tips for prevention of diabetic foot problems.

  1. Conduct a daily foot self-exam to monitor for any changes to your feet.
  2. See your doctor annually for a professional foot evaluation.
  3. Manage your diabetes through blood glucose testing, medications, diet, and exercise.
  4. Wear appropriately fitting shoes, or ask your doctor to request custom shoes or orthotics for you.
  5. Wear socks that keep moisture away from your skin.
  6. Clean your feet daily and apply a light, fragrance-free moisturizer on the feet but not in the toes.
  7. Avoid walking barefoot.
  8. Trim your toenails regularly.
  9. Stay away from abrasive products on the feet.
  10. Keep your blood moving in the feet with daily exercises.
  11. Do not smoke.
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