Diabetic neuropathy is a nerve damage from diabetes that can have serious effects throughout the body. Nerves control all aspects of our life, from walking and talking, to breathing and digestion.
Damage to nerves and blood vessels
Over time, high blood sugar can damage delicate nerve fibers, causing diabetic neuropathy. Why this happens isn't completely clear, but a combination of factors likely plays a role, including damage to the blood vessels that feed your nerves.
Diabetic neuropathy can cause a number of serious complications, including:
Loss of a limb. Because nerve damage can cause a lack of feeling in your feet, cuts and sores may go unnoticed and eventually become severely infected or ulcerated — a condition in which the skin and soft tissues break down. The risk of infection is high because diabetes reduces blood flow to your feet. Infections that spread to the bone and cause tissue death (gangrene) may be impossible to treat and require amputation of a toe, foot or even the lower leg.
Charcot joint. This occurs when a joint, usually in the foot, deteriorates because of nerve damage. Charcot joint is marked by loss of sensation, as well as swelling, instability and sometimes deformity in the joint itself. Early treatment can promote healing and prevent further damage.
Urinary tract infections and urinary incontinence. Damage to the nerves that control your bladder can prevent it from emptying completely. This allows bacteria to multiply in your bladder and kidneys, leading to urinary tract infections. Nerve damage can also affect your ability to feel when you need to urinate or to control the muscles that release urine.
Hypoglycemia unawareness. Normally, when your blood sugar drops too low — below 70 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL), or 3.9 millimoles per liter (mmol/L) — you develop symptoms such as shakiness, sweating and a fast heartbeat. Autonomic neuropathy can interfere with your ability to notice these symptoms.
Low blood pressure. Damage to the nerves that control circulation can affect your body's ability to adjust blood pressure. This can cause a sharp drop in pressure when you stand after sitting (orthostatic hypotension), which may lead to dizziness and fainting.
Digestive problems. Nerve damage in the digestive system can cause constipation or diarrhea — or alternating bouts of constipation and diarrhea — as well as nausea, vomiting, bloating and loss of appetite. It can also cause gastroparesis, a condition in which the stomach empties too slowly or not at all. This can interfere with digestion and cause nausea, vomiting and bloating, and severely affect blood sugar levels and nutrition.
Sexual dysfunction. Autonomic neuropathy often damages the nerves that affect the sex organs, leading to erectile dysfunction in men and problems with lubrication and arousal in women.
Increased or decreased sweating. When the sweat glands don't function normally, your body isn't able to regulate its temperature properly. A reduced or complete lack of perspiration (anhidrosis) can be life-threatening. Autonomic neuropathy may also cause excessive sweating, particularly at night or while eating.
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