One Approach Can Prevent and Treat Diabetic Neuropathy
If you're reading this, chances are you have diabetes, and you're concerned that the pain in your feet may be a degenerative effect of your disease. You may be right—diabetic neuropathy most commonly occurs in the feet, but it can also affect other areas of the body. The most common symptoms are pain, the sensation of pins and needles, and experiencing proprioception (or the loss of limb knowledge in space).
The causes of diabetic neuropathy
"Put simply, diabetic neuropathy is nerve damage that occurs as a result of mismanaged blood glucose," said Mark Schutta, M.D., director of the Penn Rodebaugh Diabetes Center. "Anyone who has an A1C of about 7 is at risk for the degenerative effects of diabetes, and this includes diabetic neuropathy."
A1C refers to the average blood sugar over a period of time, typically anywhere from three to six months. This reading is determined by a blood test. Diabetes is considered under control when this number is below 7, and according to Schutta, a patient may never advance to the later stages of the disease as long as they can maintain that level.
However, for patients whose blood glucose averages above 7 on the A1C, specific steps must be taken to prevent these degenerative effects.
"It is important to know that you can live a long and healthy life by keeping your blood sugar levels in the target range set by you and your healthcare provider," said a spokesperson for the communications department of Diabetes Canada. "If left unmanaged, the excess sugar in your blood can eventually cause problems and lead to serious health complications."
"We know that there are many factors that cause an elevated A1C," Schutta explained. "Regardless of a patient's specific causes, there is one specific thing that every diabetes patient can do—build a healthy lifestyle."
Treating and preventing neuropathy
Because neuropathy can be debilitating, it's important to address this condition as soon as possible to maintain your quality of life. The good news is that the treatment is the same as prevention. In other words, treating and preventing diabetic neuropathy is a simple ratio of a healthy diet and an active lifestyle.
This might seem simple enough, but anyone who has tried to put this into practice knows it isn't as easy as it might seem. People with diabetes also have their health working against them.
"I try to tell my patients to avoid extreme changes," Schutta said. "This isn't so much about shocking the system as it is about the well-being of the patient."
Schutta clarified that making dramatic changes to your lifestyle can set you up for a major backslide. He asks his own patients to make one small change a month.
"One month it might be walking 6,000 steps per day, and the next it might be this same goal, but perhaps the patient can wear a backpack filled with heavy books," he explained, adding that there's no magic pill or medication that can treat neuropathy.
Most often if a patient is treated for neuropathy, it's more about pain management so the patient will be comfortable and pain-free long enough to be active and work toward reversing the effects of neuropathy.
That the effects of neuropathy can be reversed—when addressed early enough—or at the very least stopped is an empowering thought. If you need further proof to help you build a healthy lifestyle, an overwhelming majority of patients who experience diabetic neuropathy prevent the most debilitating symptoms simply by altering their diet.
Hope for a healthy future
For many people, making small changes might not be enough because, in addition to behavioral causes, diabetes can also be influenced by genetic and environmental factors. "We know that in low-income regions, the instance of diabetes diagnoses are increased," the Diabetes Canada spokesperson said. "This is because the foods required for a healthy diet are relatively expensive."
Additionally, genetic factors can influence the type and stage of diabetes for each patient.
"I've seen women who are relatively healthy and are doing everything right but they can't control their glucose," Schutta said. "Yet, I've also seen patients who live very unhealthy lifestyles with an A1C of 7."
No matter the factors that contribute to your health profile, you can start today toward the goal of reducing your intake of added sugar and high-fat foods, while increasing your fruit and vegetable intake. In addition to diet, aiming for 150 minutes per week of daily activity in any form will help you to reach your glucose goals. These activities can be anything that increases your heart rate, such as a brisk walk, running, walking your dog or simply taking the stairs instead of the elevator.
No matter your lifestyle, there is probably room to increase your activity. You may have to get creative and start looking for windows in your schedule where you can exercise, even if that means planning short 15-minute activities throughout your day.