Can Neuropathy Affect My Heart?

About 50% of people with diabetes will develop neuropathy in their heart.

When we discuss neuropathy we focus on the pain, numbness and tingling in the feet; however, the nerves that control the heart can also be damaged. These nerves are part of the autonomic nervous system so clinically this condition is called Cardiac Autonomic Neuropathy. The autonomic system controls many essential systems in the body including the heart, blood vessels, digestions and bowel movements.

High blood sugar from diabetes or other health conditions (e.g. chemotherapy, heavy metals) can cause damage to autonomic nerves the same way nerves in the feet are damaged. Instead of causing painful symptoms, this nerve damage limits the communication between the brain and the heart and blood vessels. This can cause very distinct symptoms:

  • Very fast heart rate at rest
  • Dizziness when standing up
  • Heart rate not responding to activity

** If you are experiencing any of these symptoms consult with your healthcare provider**

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Test you Might Have

If you doctor suspects you might have cardiac autonomic neuropathy, you may be referred for on of the following tests:

  • Heart Rate Variability – this test uses electrodes to measure the nerve signals to your heart. Clinicians will look at the variability of the time between beat. This is referred to as the R-R interval.
  • 24 Hour ECG Monitor – your heart rate will be monitored for one day while performing normal daily activities to check for any changes
  • Sweat Reflex Test – uses a small electrical current to see how your sweat glands are working.
  • Axon Reflex Test – involves heating the top of the foot and then imaging the blood vessel / blood flow response when the heat is taken away.

How to Protect Your Heart

It is important to protect your heart and decrease your risks of cardiac autonomic neuropathy. By following these strategies, you can slow the onset or progression of symptoms by taking care of your heart health, diabetes and overall health in general.

  • Control your blood sugar and limit sugary foods
  • Avoid alcohol and smoking
  • Take steps to prevent or control high blood pressure
  • Achieve and maintain a healthy weight.
  • Exercise regularly

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