How diabetic neuropathy led to my diabetes diagnosis
Living with diabetes is a challenge. Altering your entire lifestyle, food and activities to keep your blood glucose levels under control can be daunting. However, it’s also critical. If you don’t, you can face long-term complications of diabetes.
One of the most important things to look out for is neuropathies. You need to spot them as early as possible, and manage them aggressively, because the damage they cause is irreversible.
There’s a myth that diabetic neuropathy only occurs in longstanding, uncontrolled diabetes. This isn’t true. In fact, sometimes neuropathy is the first symptom of diabetes and can help it be diagnosed.
I know this because of my personal experience with mononeuropathy (damage to a single nerve), which I got before I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.
A quick guide to diabetic neuropathy
Before we begin, let’s quickly break down what diabetic neuropathy is and what types of neuropathy there are.
Diabetic neuropathy is when your nerves are damaged by your diabetes. It’s caused by high glucose levels in your blood and how your body responds to it.
There are several different types of nerve damage, and each one is based on the type of nerve involved:
- Peripheral neuropathy – Damage to the nerves that lead to your extremities, i.e. your feet, legs, and hands.
- Proximal neuropathy – Damage to the nerves that control movement, affecting the muscles in the upper part of your legs, buttocks or hips. Also known as diabetic amyotrophy.
- Autonomic neuropathy – Damage to the autonomic nervous system (the nerves that carry signals to your organs and glands). This affects various functions of your body, like the pumping of blood by your heart, your digestive system, etc.
- Focal neuropathy – Damage to a single nerve (e.g. your optic nerve affecting your eye). Also known as mononeuropathy.
Although I had gestational diabetes in 2 of my pregnancies, after my last delivery, everything seemed normal. I got on with life, managing the tough routine of being a working mother with a newborn – Which didn’t leave me much time to monitor my blood glucose levels.
However, when my youngest child was about 1 year old, I began experiencing numbness and tingling in the fingers of both hands – The right more than the left.
I thought it was caused by my posture, so I bought a wrist brace and wore it every night. But it didn’t help. I then tried taking B-complex multivitamins, but that didn’t fix the problem either.
My symptoms got worse, and sometimes my hand would “go to sleep”. When the sensation returned, I’d get “pins and needles”.
They say doctors are the worst patients; I am a doctor, and this is true for me. Rather than go to the hospital and get my hands checked, I self-medicated. I kept trying to cure the problem myself, until it became so bad I couldn’t hold it off any longer.
I went to see my doctor, who advised me to:
- Get my HbA1c levels checked.
- Have nerve conduction studies on both hands.
When my HbA1c results came out, they revealed I was type 2 diabetic! – My HbA1c levels were 7% (normal is below 5.7%).
The nerve conduction studies found nerve compression in the carpal tunnel (the narrow passage in the wrists, on the palm side of the hand) in both my hands (my right more than my left), a condition known as carpal tunnel syndrome.
Carpal tunnel syndrome is frequently experienced by women with diabetes. It’s a type of compression mononeuropathy (damage to a single nerve caused by compression) that occurs when the median nerve (the motor control and sensory nerve) is compressed in your wrist.
Having been diagnosed with both type 2 diabetes and mononeuropathy, I needed to begin immediate treatment:
- I started taking oral hypoglycemic medication (medicine to prevent my blood glucose level from going too high)
- I changed my lifestyle, including my diet and exercise routines.
- I had to have a surgical procedure on my right wrist to divide some of the tissue and reduce the compression on my nerve – My nerve compression in this wrist was so severe that surgery was the only option.
Lessons learned from my experience
My episode of diabetic neuropathy taught me an important lesson – If you’re a diabetic, neuropathy can occur at any time, and once you have diabetic neuropathy, it doesn’t go away. You can only manage the symptoms and try to slow the progression by strictly controlling your blood glucose level.
So, my advice to anyone that’s diabetic or pre-diabetic is to keep a close eye on any signs and symptoms that might suggest you have neuropathy. And no matter how overwhelming it is to manage your life with diabetes, you should still invest all your energy into taking care of yourself. You can’t let diabetes reduce your chance of having a productive and happy life!
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