If you're managing diabetes, you may encounter problems with your feet and legs, two common complications of the disease. Diabetes puts you at higher risk for calluses, corns, bunions, blisters, and ulcers — and high blood sugar means these minor injuries and alterations may become gateways to potentially disabling infections.
But you can take several steps to help keep your feet in good shape, including wearing specialized footwear, having regular foot exams, and performing low-impact exercise.
Why does this complication occur in the first place? First, know that high blood sugar levels damage nerves. Researchers aren’t exactly sure how this damage happens, but they think that blood sugar may have a negative effect on the nervous system’s cells and enzymes, according to the Joslin Diabetes Center. These damaged nerves may lead to diabetic neuropathy, a condition in which you lose feeling in your feet or your hands.
According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, neuropathy occurs in about 70 percent of people with diabetes, and its symptoms can result in harmful infections. After all, if you can't feel your feet, you won't be able to notice cuts, sores, or pain. And if you can’t feel these irritations and wounds, they may lead to infection, and untreated infections can lead to gangrene, which in turn can require amputation.
Neuropathy is the cause of the dry skin experienced by many of those with diabetes: The disabled nerves in your feet can’t receive the brain’s message to sweat. Dry feet crack, which makes it possible for germs to enter the body. Nerve damage can also cause changes to the shape of your feet, which can make previously comfortable shoes hard to walk in. That friction creates calluses and bunions that can wear down and expose skin to germs. In addition, diabetes also causes the blood vessels to shrink and harden, which can make it hard for your feet to fight infection.
To help manage these symptoms, you can safely use lotion, according to the American Diabetes Association. But it's important to make sure you don’t put it between your toes because the extra moisture in that tight space may encourage fungus to grow. In contrast, soaking your feet when you have diabetes isn't a good idea. This approach can make already-vulnerable skin even more fragile and susceptible to infection, either through making your skin too dry or too soft.
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