Diabetes Patches: What Are They, and Do They Work?

Managing diabetes can be a challenge. You need to watch what you eat. If you need insulin, you have to stick your finger and give yourself shots several times a day. But thanks to new technology, some diabetes patches can make it easier and more convenient to live with the condition.

Not all of these patches are a good idea, though. The patches you can trust deliver insulin through the skin, like you’d get with a shot. You can also trust sensors that you can wear that keep tabs on your blood glucose levels.

These patches aren’t just fancy stickers. They’re part of diabetes management systems. The FDA has tested and approved them to be sure they're safe for people.

The nonprescription “diabetic patch” sold online and at some drugstores is very different. It claims to treat symptoms with a mix of herbs delivered through your skin. There's no good evidence that this type of patch works. In fact, there's very little research on it.

Types of Diabetes Patches

Diabetes patches work in different ways. These are a few examples.

Insulin patch-pump. This prescription system includes a small cartridge you fill with fast-acting insulin. It’s attached to a patch you stick on your body. The insulin gets into your bloodstream through a small needle that the patch holds in place. Research shows that people who use them need less daily insulin than people who rely on shots.

Continuous glucose monitoring systems. With this system, you stick a sensor on your skin. Then you use a device that works with it -- in some cases, your smartphone -- to scan it. The sensor shows information about your blood sugar, including your daily level patterns. It doesn't deliver medication, but you need a prescription to get one.

Experimental insulin patches. Researchers are at work on a way to deliver insulin through a patch without any other device. Think of it like a nicotine patch for smokers trying to quit, or a pain relief patch for people with sore muscles. Results are promising in animals, but much more research needs to happen before it gets the OK for people.

Herbal, over-the-counter (OTC) patches. Just because a major retailer sells something doesn’t mean it works. This is the case with so-called diabetes patches or diabetic patches. They’re not FDA-approved. This means they haven't gone through the same testing process as approved medications and devices. There isn't even reliable research on the combination of herbs these patches claim to deliver.

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Chinese Herbal Medicine for Diabetes

Chinese herbal medicine is often used for diabetes-related symptoms in China. The most common OTC diabetes patches list a blend of traditional Chinese medicinal herbs. Are Americans missing out on this potential alternative to Western medicine?

Not according to available research and doctors. There aren’t many studies on transdermal (through-the-skin) herbs for the condition. But one large review looked at the effect of herbs on a common complication of the disease called neuropathy.

Researchers analyzed results from 38 different Chinese herbal remedies. There was no good evidence that they worked for diabetes-related neuropathy. Researchers also found that medical problems linked to these products were poorly reported.

No Standalone Skin Patches Treat Diabetes

Right now, there's no standalone patch -- prescription or nonprescription -- that you can stick on your skin to control diabetes. The patches that do help manage this disease are part of complex medical device systems.

But some medicated patches can help with other health problems that can happen in people who have this disorder. A few examples:

 

The Appeal of Natural Treatments for Diabetes

If the idea of a “natural” patch for diabetes appeals to you, you’re in good company. Many people around the world who have it aren't happy with conventional medicine to manage it. Sometimes, that’s because it doesn’t work as well as they want. Other times, it can cause unpleasant side effects.

The cost of medicine is another reason you may look for natural remedies, including a patch. Some research shows the cost of insulin has doubled in recent years.

If you want to cut down on the amount of conventional medicine you take, talk to your doctor about ways to control your diabetes better. Also, take your doctor's suggestions about weight loss, healthy eating, and regular exercise to heart. They take commitment and hard work, but they help keep your blood sugar closer to normal. That can mean that you can put off or stop serious complications.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Michael Dansinger, MD on September 26, 2019

Sources

SOURCES:

Drug Discovery Today: “A review of non-invasive insulin delivery systems for diabetes therapy in clinical trials over the past decade.”

National Institutes of Health: “Continuous Glucose Monitoring.”               

Keith Roach, MD, associate professor of clinical medicine, Weill-Cornell Medical College, New York City.

V-Go: “Using V-Go.” 

Journal of Diabetes Science and Technology: "Efficacy of a Tubeless Patch Pump in Patients With Type 2 Diabetes Previously Treated With Multiple Daily Injections."

Blood Pressure UK: "Diabetes and high blood pressure."

FreeStyle Libre: “You Can Do It Without Finger Sticks.” 

Diabetes.co.uk: “Insulin Patch,” "Angina and Diabetes," "Neurogenic Bladder."

Mayo Clinic: "Herbal supplements: What to know before you buy,” “Clonidine (Transdermal Route),” “Oxybutynin (Transdermal Route),” “Nitroglycerin (Transdermal Route),” “Type 2 Diabetes.” 

The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews: “Chinese herbal medicine for diabetic peripheral neuropathy.”

Current Diabetes Reviews: "Alternative Therapies for Diabetes: A Comparison of Western and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) Approaches."

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