There’s More to Diabetes Neuropathy Than Your Legs and Feet
Last updated: February 2023
Most people think about the feet and legs regarding diabetes neuropathy. However, nerve damage can affect other body parts, too. To learn more about some of the other kinds of diabetes neuropathy, read on.
What is diabetes autonomic neuropathy?
When diabetes neuropathy affects your body's autonomic nervous system, it's called diabetes autonomic neuropathy, or DAN. Your autonomic system is in charge of bodily functions that you can't control with your thoughts, like digestion, heartbeat, and keeping your blood pressure in a healthy range. That means diabetes autonomic neuropathy can affect how well your body performs some of these functions.1
What are types of diabetes autonomic neuropathy?
Gastroparesis affects how your stomach processes or digests your food. Damage to the nerves in charge of stomach digestion means food sits in your stomach longer. It can make you feel full before you've finished your meal. It can also make you feel sick to your stomach or lose your appetite. Some people even throw up after meals. Gastroparesis can be hard to diagnose. And other parts of your digestive tract (like your colon and esophagus) can be impacted, too.1
Cardiovascular autonomic neuropathy
Another example of DAN is cardiovascular autonomic neuropathy (CAN). Cardiovascular autonomic neuropathy affects both your heart rate and your blood pressure. CAN's effect on heart rate might increase your heart rate when you're relaxed and resting. It also may cause your body to struggle to adjust your blood pressure and heart rate to changes during physical activity.
You may also experience drops in blood pressure when you sit or stand (called orthostatic hypotension) that cause you to be lightheaded, dizzy, or pass out. Depending on how severe your neuropathy is, it may be difficult to treat or manage these problems.1
Sexual dysfunction is an example of autonomic neuropathy. Among women, sexual dysfunction can mean decreased sexual desire or more pain during sex. For men, erectile dysfunction (ED) is common. Erectile dysfunction impacts at least half of men with diabetes. While nerve damage is part of the picture, it's not the whole picture. ED may also be linked to damaged blood vessels or heart disease (both of which are more likely with diabetes). There is no cure for ED, but there are several treatment options your medical team can help you explore.1,2
Neuropathy can also change how a body part looks
Sensation and function do not tell the whole story of diabetes neuropathy. By now, you realize that neuropathy impacts your body in many different ways. Sensation refers to pain, numbness, or tingling. Function refers to your body parts being able to do their job and do it well. But, neuropathy can also change how a body part looks and how it feels, as you'll see in the final example below.
Charcot's foot is a severe condition in which the bones in your foot become weak and fracture (break). Because of your neuropathy, you may not feel pain or notice your foot has fractured and keep doing the same activities (such as walking). Over time, your foot can change shape—usually, a ball-shape forms on the bottom of your foot where your arch used to be. The change in your foot's shape can make any activity hard to do or make it hard to keep your feet healthy.3
Don't be afraid to report concerns to your primary care physician about changes in how body parts look, function, or feel. Bringing matters to your doctor is likely the best way to prevent further complications and get timely treatment.
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