How to Protect Your Diabetic Feet
Most people know that a diabetes diagnosis is linked with a higher risk of foot problems. But how big is the risk? What can actually happen to your feet?
Unfortunately, without proper care, diabetic foot complications can be wide-ranging and severe—everything from nerve problems to chronic wounds to substantial injuries and deformities. But don’t worry, we’re also going to show you what you can do to prevent these outcomes, too.
What Can Happen to My Diabetic Feet?
Your nerves stop working. Nerves are the biological “telephone lines” your body uses to transmit signals and connect tissues from the body to the brain. You rely on them not only for your senses of touch and pain, but also to control muscle movement and even regulate digestion, blood pressure, and other “automatic” systems.
High blood sugar poisons nerves and causes inflammation that can pinch or block them. Nerves in the feet and legs are the most vulnerable, and so symptoms typically start there. At first, you might experience occasional tingling or burning pain. Later, your legs might go totally numb, and you could lose significant muscle strength and coordination. You might even lose bladder or digestion control.
Your blood stops pumping. Your feet and toes already get less circulation than the areas closer to your heart and other vital organs. Diabetes makes the problem even worse.
You rely on your circulatory system to keep your body’s cells stocked with all the oxygen, nutrients, and chemicals they need to thrive. Your bloodstream is also responsible for clotting wounds, healing injuries, and fighting germs that enter the body.
Your feet get injured more frequently and develop chronic wounds. This follows logically from the combination of nerve and circulatory problems. If your nerves don’t work, you’re much less likely to notice that you’ve gotten a cut, blister, ingrown toenail, or maybe even a broken bone. And because your circulation is weak, your body can’t heal the tissue or fight any resulting infections as well as it needs to.
If you have diabetes, everything from minor fungal infections and dry skin to major traumas is more common. And even small cuts can become larger, festering, infected wounds without professional care.
Your feet become structurally deformed. Again, we continue to follow the above items to their logical conclusion. Bones, ligaments, and tendons weaken without the nutrients they need and are more likely to tear, crack, or even snap. People with diabetes are therefore much more likely to develop structural deformities like bunions and hammertoes.
Those with severe nerve damage could even suffer a total foot collapse, where the foot takes on a rocker-bottom appearance after significant and repeated crumbling of the bones.
You could lose your foot, or more. If you develop a deformity severe enough that it cannot be recovered or repaired, or an infection that reaches bone and permanently kills a significant portion of healthy cells, there may be no choice but to amputate part of the foot or limb.
Although this will usually end the immediate danger, it has severe consequences for the remainder of your life, and your risk of developing complications or health problems in the short-to-medium-term future remain high. One study showed that even after a successful amputation, as many as half of people with diabetes will die within the next few years.
You can’t live your best life anymore. This is obviously true in the case of an amputation, of course. But even nerve damage alone can slowly restrict your lifestyle and take away your independence.
A few simple examples? If you can’t feel the pedals beneath your feet, you can’t drive safely. If your feet swell and ache after just a few minutes of standing, you might not be able to work, or travel, or play with your grandkids at the park. Little by little, your world gets smaller.
Is All This Really Going to Happen to Me?
Maybe. But it doesn’t have to.
We won’t sugar coat it—the statistics are grim.
- More than 30 million Americans currently suffer from diabetes.
- More than 100 million have chronically elevated blood sugar (diabetes or prediabetes).
- More than half of people with diabetes will develop some form of nerve damage in their feet.
- About 1 in 4 people with diabetes will develop at least one chronic foot ulcer in their lifetime.
- In the United States alone, more than 70 thousand lower limb amputations are performed on diabetic patients for reasons other than trauma (i.e., wounds).
But there is still hope, and there’s still time. Those who are consistent in managing their diabetes and protecting their feet can dramatically lower their risk of developing complications.
Best of all, it isn’t difficult and it will only take a few minutes per day. You just need to develop the discipline.
How Do I Prevent Diabetic Foot Complications?
Here’s your game plan:
Give yourself a self-checkup every day. Check your feet closely for cuts, bruises, bumps, swelling hot or cold spots, nail damage—anything that looks less than fully healthy. Problems that don’t improve should be referred to your doctor immediately.
Keep your sugar in check. Elevated blood glucose is how diabetes does most of its damage. If you’re checking yourself regularly and controlling your glucose with appropriate diet and insulin, your feet will stay healthier for longer.
Keep your feet clean and moisturized. Wash feet at least once per day with mild soap and lukewarm water. Once you’ve patted dry, apply a good lotion to dry areas, especially your heels, and “lock it in” by putting on a pair of clean socks.
Support your feet with appropriate footwear. Never go barefoot, even inside your own home. Make sure your shoes are comfortable and closed toe. If you struggle with finding a pair of shoes that fit properly, stop by our office and we can recommend one, or fit you for an appropriate diabetic shoe and/or custom orthotic.
Engage in safe exercise. Exercise is one of the most important ways to manage your sugar and keep circulation as strong as possible. However, if you’re already experiencing nerve damage or pain, certain exercises might be more dangerous. Be sure to go over your exercise routine with your doctor before beginning.
Limit your vices. Alcohol abuse and especially smoking significantly increase the risk of diabetic-related complications and injuries. Cut them out of your life.
See your podiatrist regularly. We recommend our diabetic patients see us at least once per year for a comprehensive checkup. At this time, we’ll not only take care of any ongoing issues, but also test your nerves for the early warning signs of damage, and determine whether you could benefit from additional proactive, preventative treatments such as diabetic shoes.