Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. For regularly updated information on a variety of health topics, please visit familydoctor.org, the AAFP patient education website.

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Am Fam Physician. 1999;60(3):1000

How does diabetes affect my body?

Diabetes makes your blood sugar level higher than normal. High blood sugar levels can damage the nerves in your body. When diabetes damages the nerves, it's called diabetic neuropathy.

What is diabetic neuropathy?

Diabetic neuropathy makes your nerves less effective, so they can't carry messages to the brain and other parts of your body. Diabetic neuropathy can affect the following:

  • Your ability to feel sensation in different parts of your body (especially your feet).

  • The ability of your heart to keep up with the needs of your body.

  • The ability of your intestines to digest food.

  • Your ability to achieve an erection (in men).

Who gets diabetic neuropathy?

Nerve damage can occur if you've had diabetes for a long time. People who don't (or can't) control their blood sugar very well are more likely to get diabetic neuropathy. Men have diabetic neuropathy more often than women.

What can I do to avoid diabetic neuropathy?

The most important thing you can do is keep your blood sugar under control as much as possible. Eat a variety of healthy foods. Don't eat foods that are high in sugar, fat or cholesterol. If you're overweight, your doctor may want you to lose weight. Exercise regularly. Take your medicines just the way your doctor tells you. It also helps to keep your blood pressure under control (if you have high blood pressure).

How do I know I have diabetic neuropathy?

You may have diabetic neuropathy if you have any of the following:

  • Pain in your legs

  • Numbness in your feet and toes

  • A feeling of lightheadedness that causes you to fall

  • Diarrhea or constipation

  • Failure to get erections (in men)

Tell your doctor right away if you get any of these signs.

What will happen if the nerves in my legs and feet are damaged?

If diabetic neuropathy has damaged the nerves in your legs and feet, you may not be able to feel pain in those parts of your body. Pain is an important signal that something is wrong. If you don't have feeling in your feet, you could have an injury and not know it. Diabetic neuropathy may also make your muscles weak, which could make it harder for you to walk. If you have diabetic neuropathy, your doctor will talk with you about how to cope with it.

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