For millions of people with diabetes, living with nerve pain means learning to improvise. Even the best medicines only cut nerve pain by about half, on average. And some people with diabetes might want to avoid the expense and potential side effects of additional prescription drugs.
Not surprisingly, more than half of people with diabetic neuropathy say they've tried complementary treatments to relieve their nerve pain.
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Experts say the urge toward self-care is good. "There are a lot of effective things you can do at home to improve the pain from diabetic neuropathy," says Sue McLaughlin, RD, CDE, president of health care and education for the American Diabetes Association. "You live with it every day, and you can do something positive about it daily, too."
Peripheral Neuropathy: The Not-So-Minor Complication of Diabetes
Diabetic nerve pain is caused by nerve damage, the result of the toxic effects of high blood sugars and poor circulation. Over time, as more nerve fibers are lost, nerves lose their ability to transmit sensation. Numbness in the feet and legs is the common symptom that two-thirds of people with diabetes experience at some point.
The damage also makes nerves more likely to misfire. They may send pain signals in response to ordinary touching or for no apparent reason. "People frequently describe nerve pain as burning, electrical shocks, or pins and needles," says McLaughlin. Nerve pain is usually in the feet and legs, but can also be in the hands.
About 25% of people with diabetes experience nerve pain. Pain can range from annoying to debilitating, even making simple daily activities intolerably painful. Because symptoms are usually worse at night, neuropathic pain often interferes with sleep, and mood problems such as irritability and depression can follow.
"Diabetic peripheral neuropathy is a so-called minor complication of diabetes, but not to the people who live with the pain it creates," says Laurence Kinsella, MD, professor of neurology at Saint Louis University and a fellow with the American Academy of Neurology.
"Medicines, and doctors for that matter, can only do so much. Everyone with this condition should be doing certain things for themselves at home too," Kinsella says.
WebMD asked the diabetes experts for guidance on some of the most widely used home care therapies for diabetic nerve pain. Here are the top 10 strategies -- some old standbys and a few surprises.
The Top Neuropathic Pain Treatment: Controlling Blood Sugar Levels
When it comes to reducing pain from diabetic neuropathy, "controlling your sugar isn't just your No. 1 strategy; it's practically the whole top ten," says McLaughlin.
The toxic effects of high blood sugar are what cause nerve damage and nerve pain in the first place. Continued high sugar "only lets the process continue," says McLaughlin. But keeping sugars close to normal can stop ongoing damage and improve the pain of diabetic neuropathy, studies show. And because some diabetic nerve damage might be reversible, reducing sugar may have even more benefits.
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