How Does Diabetes Affect Your Body?

It can take work to get your diabetes under control, but the results are worth it.

If you don't make the effort to get a handle on it, you could set yourself up for a host of complications. Diabetes can take a toll on nearly every organ in your body, including the:

  • Heart and blood vessels
  • Eyes
  • Kidneys
  • Nerves
  • Gums and teeth

Heart and Blood Vessels

Heart disease and blood vessel disease are common problems for many people who don’t have their diabetes under control. You're at least twice as likely to have heart problems and strokes as people who don’t have the condition.

Blood vessel damage or nerve damage may also cause foot problems that, in rare cases, can lead to amputations. People with diabetes are ten times likelier to have their feet and legs removed than those without the disease.

Symptoms: You might not notice warning signs until you have a heart attack or stroke. Problems with large blood vessels in your legs can cause leg cramps, changes in skin color, and less sensation.

The good news: Many studies show that controlling your diabetes can help you avoid these problems, or stop them from getting worse if you have them.

Eyes

Diabetes is the leading cause of new vision loss among adults ages 20 to 74 in the U.S. It can lead to eye problems, some of which can cause blindness if not treated:

  • Glaucoma
  • Cataracts
  • Diabetic retinopathy

Symptoms: Vision problems, sight loss, or pain in your eye if you have diabetes-related eye disease.

The good news: Studies show that regular eye exams and timely treatment of these kinds of problems could prevent up to 90% of diabetes-related blindness.

Kidney Disease

Diabetes is the leading cause of kidney failure in adults in the U.S., accounting for almost half of new cases.

Symptoms: You might not notice any problems with early diabetes-related kidney disease. In later stages it can make your legs and feet swell.

The good news: Drugs that lower blood pressure (even if you don't have high blood pressure) can cut your risk of kidney failure by 33%.

Continued

Nerves

Over time, high blood sugar levels can harm your nerves. As many as 70% of people with diabetes get this type of damage.

  • Peripheral diabetic neuropathy can cause pain and burning or a loss of feeling in your feet. It usually starts with your toes. It can also affect your hands and other body parts.
  • Autonomic neuropathy stems from damage to the nerves that control your internal organs. Symptoms include sexual problems, digestive issues (a condition called gastroparesis), trouble sensing when your bladder is full, dizziness and fainting, or not knowing when your blood sugar is low.

The good news: You have many options to treat your pain. The doctor might prescribe an antidepressant, a medication that stops seizures (called an anticonvulsant).  He could also give you drugs that go on your skin, like creams or patches. He might suggest you use a device that stimulates your nerves called TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation).

Teeth

Having diabetes puts you at higher risk for gum disease.

Symptoms: Your gums might be red and swollen and bleed easily.

The good news: If you keep your blood sugar under control, visit your dentist regularly, and take good care of your teeth each day by brushing, flossing and rinsing with an antiseptic mouthwash. In doing so you can avoid gum problems and tooth loss.

Take Charge of Your Condition

Some people have to make only small lifestyle changes to keep their blood sugar under control to reverse a diabetes complication. Others need medications to stop them from getting worse.

Treatment of complications focuses on slowing down the damage. That may include medication, surgery, or other options.

But the most important ways to slow diabetes complications are to keep your blood sugar levels under control, eat right, exercise, avoid smoking, and get high blood pressure and high cholesterol treated.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Michael Dansinger, MD on January 09, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:

National Diabetes Education Program. 

UpToDate: “Treatment of Diabetic Neuropathy” and "Lower extremity amputation."

NIH: “Periodontal (Gum) Disease: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments.”

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