One of the potential complications of diabetes is diabetic neuropathy, or nerve damage. Excess blood glucose can cause damage to nerves throughout the body over time. There are several different types of diabetic neuropathies, including peripheral neuropathy and autonomic neuropathy. The difference between the different types has do to with the functions of the nerves that are affected.
Sensorimotor nerves are involved in sensations such as touch, pain and telling muscles to contract or relax. Some nerves are strictly sensory, some are strictly motor and some are a mix of both. When sensorimotor nerves in the arms and legs are damaged, the result is called peripheral neuropathy. Peripheral neuropathy is extremely common in diabetics, especially in the feet and lower legs. Peripheral nerve damage may be felt as pain, which is sometimes described as shooting or burning pain, strange “pins and needles” sensations, numbness or muscle weakness. Sensorimotor neuropathy can happen pretty much anywhere on the body, but the limbs are the most common site for this to occur.
Autonomic nerves have functions such as regulating blood pressure, regulating heart rate and controlling digestion, urination and the sexual response. There are a variety of things that can happen in a diabetic person who has nerve damage in these autonomic nerves. If the gastrointestinal nerves are affected, gastrointestinal disorders, such as gastroparesis, that may cause abdominal pain and cramping may result. It is also possible to develop symptoms such as difficulty swallowing. People with autonomic nerve damage may have an abnormally high heart rate while resting and have blood pressure problems. Autonomic nerve damage can also cause urinary incontinence, an increased risk of developing urinary tract infections and a decreased sexual response. Other possible effects of autonomic nerve damage throughout the body include poor night vision due to a decrease in light responsiveness of the eyes, decreased sweating in response to being too hot and a decreased ability to tell when your blood sugar is dangerously low.
Diabetic neuropathy can cause pain and other problems all throughout the body. Keeping your blood glucose levels tightly controlled can prevent neuropathy from getting worse and prevent it in the first place if you have just been diagnosed with diabetes. Diabetic nerve pain is usually treated more effectively with antidepressants or anticonvulsants than with traditional pain medications.