Diseases and Disorders

Diabetic Neuropathy: An Overview

Priya Vijayakumar


As of 2012, approximately 29.1 million Americans suffer from diabetes (Statistics About Diabetes. n.d.). From that population of diabetics, diabetic neuropathy affects, or will affect, at least 50%. Characterized by a tingling sensation, numbness, pain, and a loss of sensation or motor control, diabetic neuropathy is the leading cause of peripheral neuropathy, or peripheral nerve damage (Smith, A. G., & Singleton, J. R. 2012). Diabetic neuropathy, or nerve damage, is prominent in diabetics with type 2 diabetes and progresses with the severity and duration of the diabetes (Fink, E., & Oaklander, A. L., 2005). A troubling feature of diabetic neuropathy is that it is often undetected while the disease process progresses. Due to this problem, patients with diabetic neuropathy do not consider treatment options until the problem has advanced to a severe extent; this issue causes patients to suffer frequent falling, foot ulcers, and limb amputations which in turn lead to morbidity, mortality and increased medical spending (Ramsey, S. D., Newton, K., Blough, D., et al., 1999).  



    Diabetic neuropathy can be broadly described based on the body region impacted by the neuropathy: sensory, autonomic and motor (Diabetic Neuropathy (Nerve Damage) - An Update. n.d.). Based on the onset of symptoms and the nerves and muscles involved, diabetic neuropathy can be categorized in two ways: chronic and acute. Chronic neuropathies refer to distal symmetric polyneuropathy (DSP) and diabetic autonomic neuropathy (DAN). Acute neuropathies refer to diabetic amyotrophy and treatment-related neuropathy (Smith, A. G., & Singleton, J. R. 2012).


Prominent Forms

    Identified by its gradual onset, DSP primarily affects the lower extremities, developing from the toes and feet before progressing upwards. As its name suggests, DSP develops in a symmetric manner. Nearly 50% of patients with DSP experience further neuropathic symptoms aside from pain such as allodynia or dysesthesia (Zelman, D., Gore, M., & Brandenburg, N., 2005). DSP is also linked to the development of Charcot neuroarthropathy, which further increases in mortality (Smith, A. G., & Singleton, J. R. 2012). As the disease progresses, patients experience a loss of sensation, which may lead to the onset of undetected foot ulcers that go untreated—DSP is the most prevalent cause of foot ulcers and limb amputations (Tesfaye, S., Boulton, A. J., & Dickinson, A. H., (n.d.)., Smith, A. G., & Singleton, J. R. 2012).

    DAN affects the autonomic nervous system, impacting internal organ systems such as the gastrointestinal tract, cardiovascular system or sex organs (Fink, E., & Oaklander, A. L., 2005). For example, in the case of DAN causing cardiovascular autonomic dysfunction (CAD), patients can suffer from silent myocardial infarctions without prior indications of pain. The majority of patients experience general symptoms such as dizziness, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and erectile dysfunction (Smith, A. G., & Singleton, J. R. 2012, Nagsayi, S., Somasekhar, C., & James, C. M., 2010).

    Diabetic amyotrophy is the most common of the two acute diabetic neuropathies (Smith, A. G., & Singleton, J. R. 2012). Diabetic amyotrophy is characterized by severe pain and weakness in proximal muscles located in the hips or thighs such as the hip adductors and/or the quadriceps (Nagsayi, S., Somasekhar, C., & James, C. M., 2010). Atrophy of muscles and dysfunction in ambulation can lead to wheelchair dependency (Smith, A. G., & Singleton, J. R. 2012).

    Treatment-induced neuropathy develops after sudden corrections in glycemic index of diabetics (Gibbons, C. H., & Freeman, R. 2014). Patients with treatment-induced neuropathy often experience unintentional weight loss. Patients typically experience widespread pain and sometimes, autonomic dysfunction. Treatment-induced neuropathy often improves over time but can reoccur if triggered as previously mentioned (Smith, A. G., & Singleton, J. R. 2012).


Methods of Detection

    There are several ways to detect the presence of diabetic neuropathy. Common detection methods include the knee or ankle jerk reflex test, electromyography, nerve conduction tests, clinical observations and at times, X-rays if needed (Diabetic Neuropathy (Nerve Damage) - An Update. n.d.).


Treatment Options and Preventative Measures

    Although there are no treatment options that reverse damage caused by diabetic neuropathy, treatments are available to prevent, cope with, and decelerate its progression. Currently, there are three types of treatments available: disease-modifying treatments that mitigate the disease process, anticonvulsant drugs, and opioids for symptomatic relief. Since diabetic neuropathy accompanies diabetes, the best preventative measure is to reduce risk factors for diabetes such as increased consumption of triglycerides, smoking, hypertension, and obesity (Fink, E., & Oaklander, A. L., 2005; Smith, A. G., & Singleton, J. R. 2012). Controlling body weight, pursuing a heart-healthy diet, and exercising regularly significantly reduce the chance of developing diabetes thereby preventing the onset of diabetic neuropathies.



Key Terms

Neuropathy- A disorder caused by peripheral nerve damage.

Type 2 diabetes- A chronic condition in which the body’s ability to process glucose is impaired.

Autonomic nervous system - The portion of the nervous system that regulates viscera (internal organs)

Glycemic index - Value that represents how carbohydrates in food raise blood glucose levels.

Electromyography- Device that records electrical activity produced by skeletal muscles.

Anticonvulsant drugs - Type of drugs that are used to treat seizures.

Opioids- Drug that produces morphine-like effects such as relieving pain.

Triglycerides - A specific type of fat with three fatty-acid tails extending from a glycerol core


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Priya Vijayakumar

Priya Vijayakumar

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