Over time, high blood sugar can damage nerves in the feet, causing you to lose sensation. It's a condition called neuropathy, says podiatrist Robert W. Herpen, DPM, assistant professor at Temple University School of Podiatric Medicine in Philadelphia. Neuropathy can also cause burning, pain, or tingling.
Also, too much sugar in the blood damages arteries, decreasing blood flow to your feet. “If you have an injury [such as a cut], you’re not able to respond with enough blood flow to handle the infection,” he says. This could lead to an uncontrolled infection, gangrene (tissue death), bone infection, or even amputation.
Having diabetes doesn’t mean you’re destined for foot complications. But you do have to watch your health closely.
First up? Keep your blood sugar levels under control. To do that, eat healthy meals, watch how many carbs you get, exercise regularly, and lose weight if you need to, he says.
Next? “Do daily inspections of your feet,” Herpen says. Use a mirror to see them better. Or ask a relative or friend for help, he says.
Look closely for any changes in skin color, and any cuts, corns, calluses, blisters, or ingrown toenails. If you do have corns or calluses, “Don’t try to take care of it yourself,” he says. “You could cut yourself.” Instead, see your podiatrist or doctor.
Daily foot care is as crucial as daily foot inspections. Wash your feet and make sure the water is lukewarm, Herpen says. Use a mild soap. Dry your feet gently, and use lotion to moisturize -- though not between your toes, as the extra moisture can lead to infection.
What else can you do to avoid complications? Never go barefoot even in your home, Herpen says. You might step on something without knowing it and injure your foot.
And wear white socks, he advises. “If you have a sore or blister you’ll see it drain in the sock” and be alerted to problems sooner.
Wear shoes that fit properly, too. Look for a comfortable pair with extra padding and supple leather to avoid rubbing that could create blisters.
“The most important thing is that you’re fitted for the shoe,” he says. And if your doctor recommends it, wear special shoes made for those with diabetes, Herpen says, since the condition can change the shape of your feet.
If you do get neuropathy, medications may help, he says.
To avoid foot problems, keep your blood sugar under control, check your feet daily, practice foot hygiene, and see your doctor or podiatrist at least every 12 months for a foot exam, the American Diabetes Association recommends. Visit the doctor more often if you have any foot problems, Herpen says.
“We see people who are 80 or 90 years old whose feet are fine because they’ve watched their blood sugar,” he says. “And they see a podiatrist if anything develops.”
Ask Your Doctor
- What kinds of foot changes should I watch for?
- How should I inspect my feet?
- What should I do about trimming my nails?
- What can I do to protect my feet?
- What can I do about dry skin on my feet?
- How often should I see you for a foot inspection?