Diabetes, a disease that affects 29 million people, has many complications. One such complication is diabetic neuropathy - a nerve disorder that can cause numbness, pain, extending problems and weakness.

In people with diabetes, the body's nerves can be damaged by decreased blood flow and a high blood sugar level. Diabetic neuropathy is more likely to develop when the blood sugar level is not well controlled.

About half of people with diabetes develop nerve damage. Although nerve problems can develop at any time, they most often occur about 10 years after the diagnosis of diabetes. The longer the person has diabetes, the higher the risk of developing diabetic neuropathy.

Diabetic Neuropathy Symptoms

Diabetic neuropathy symptoms vary and depend on the nerves that are affected.

Nerves in the feet and legs are most often affected. Symptoms often start in the toes and feet, and include tingling or burning, or deep pain. Over time, nerve damage can also occur in the fingers and hands. As the damage gets worse, you will likely lose feeling in your feet and legs.

In diabetic neuropathy, the pain may feel like a burning sensation in the feet. It has also been described as a series of jolts down the lower extremities. Because the pain can be worse at night, diabetic neuropathy can affect sleep.

Neuropathy can be localized or generalized, depending on what nerves are affected. Nerve damage can also affect digestion, the cardiovascular system, blood sugar, sweating and sexual function.

Diabetic Neuropathy Diagnosis

In addition to physical and neurological examinations, your doctor may run screening tests, including:

  • Blood test
  • Nerve conduction study
  • Electromyography
  • Ultrasound
  • Nerve biopsy

Diabetic Neuropathy Treatment

The treatment for diabetic neuropathy is aimed at relieving discomfort and preventing further tissue damage.

Treatment begins with controlling blood-sugar levels and continues with medications to relieve the pain, burning or numbness. Analgesics or anti-inflammatory drugs may help, as well as antidepressants, nerve medications, pain killers and topical creams.

Other treatments may include electronic nerve stimulations, biofeedback, relaxation training, exercise, warm baths and massage.

Diabetic Neuropathy Research

Scientists continue to study how high blood glucose leads to nerve damage and how constriction of blood vessels supplying the nerve contributes to nerve damage.

Several new drugs are being tested to help prevent or reverse diabetic neuropathy.