Diabetes Education

Diabetes Complications

Diabetes can lead to many complications in the human body. Diabetes will not only affect a person's blood sugar, but it can affect other important body functions and organs. People who have diabetes may be more at risk for developing complications or diseases. It is important to follow recommendations from a physician or other diabetes health specialist to prevent or treat diabetes complications such as diabetic neuropathy, diabetic retinopathy or other vision complications, erectile dysfunction, and hypoglycemia.

Diabetic Neuropathy

Diabetes can also cause extreme nerve damage in the body. Diabetic Neuropathies are a "family of nerve disorders caused by diabetes". Diabetic patients can develop nerve problems in their feet, legs, arms and hands at any point in their life. The nerve damage is most likely due to metabolic factors, such as high blood glucose, nerve injury, neurovascular factors which affect blood vessels carrying oxygen to the nerves, as well as lifestyle factors and genetics. Although the symptoms of diabetic neuropathies start as a minor problem, they can grow to be extremely severe later on in life. Some symptoms include numbness in the body’s extremities, indigestion, diarrhea, erectile dysfunction and overall weakness of the body.

Diabetic neuropathy is broken down into four classifications.

1. Peripheral neuropathy causes the loss of sensation in the body’s extremities. Numbness, loss of balance, and sharp pains can occur most commonly in the legs and feet.

2. Autonomic neuropathy affects the nerves that control the heart, as well as other internal organs such as bladder and bowel functions, digestion, perspiration and can also cause hypoglycemia.

3. Proximal neuropathy is most common in type 2 diabetes patients and affects the lower part of the body, including the thighs, hips and buttocks.

4. Focal neuropathy affects any nerve in the body which can include the eyes, facial muscles, thighs and abdomen. The symptoms include severe pain and aching and are most common in older people.

To avoid diabetic neuropathy, it is recommended that patients keep their blood glucose levels as normal as possible in order to protect the nerves in the body. Most patients who suffer from diabetic neuropathy have foot problems because the foot contains the longest nerve in the body. Doctors suggest that people with diabetes take extra special care of their feet by cleaning them daily, inspecting them constantly for cuts, swelling or other problems, moisturizing and also wearing comfortable shoes that allow the toes to move.

Diabetic Retinopathy and Other Vision Complications

Diabetics can also suffer from eye problems. When blood glucose levels get too high in the body, the nerves in the eye become affected, which can hurt the retinas of the eye. The retina is the lining in the back of the eye that monitors light entering the eye. Behind the retina are tiny blood vessels. When glucose levels and blood pressure gets too high, the blood vessels behind the eye will swell, weaken, and not let enough blood through. When this happens, the body will go new blood vessels, but they are weaker and break easily, leaking blood into the eyes. The blood will block all light from entering the retina, and therefore will cause temporary and/or total darkness. Some patients will need surgery to remove the blood.

To avoid retina problems, patients are suggested to keep their blood pressure as normal as possible. Leaking blood vessels behind they eye can also be cured by a laser treatment which stopped the blood leak and can slow the permanent loss of sight. If the situation is too sever, the doctor will perform surgery to remove the blood and replace it with clean fluid which can improve eyesight. Symptoms of diabetic retina damage include blurry vision, dark or floating spots, or pain and pressure in the eyes. Diabetes can also cause other eye problems including cataracts, which gives patients blurry vision, and glaucoma, which is caused by pressure build up in the eye and will damage the optic nerve, or the main nerve, of the eye.

Erectile Dysfunction

Erectile Dysfunction is the inability for a male to maintain an erection during sexual intercourse. An erection requires a unique set of events which includes impulses from the brain, and responses from muscles and arteries near the corpora cavernosa, which is an important chamber located in the penis. Erectile dysfunction will occur when a male has damage to his nerves or other muscles and tissues in the body. Diabetic patients suffer from tissue damage, and therefore account for 70% of the erectile dysfunction cases. Other factors such as smoking, exercise, common medicines and previous surgery history can also affect the chances of erectile dysfunction. Some men can cure this problem by changing their lifestyle choices and exercising more, or quit smoking; however other patients will require more complicated treatments and should speak to their doctor about alternative options.


Hypoglycemia occurs when blood sugar levels drop below normal and affect the body’s activities. In healthy individuals, when blood glucose levels begin to fall, the pancreas creates a hormone called glucagon which causes the liver to release glucose, which will in turn raise the body's sugar levels back to normal. In people with diabetes, however, the pancreas’s response to produce glucagon fails, and therefore the body’s normal glucose levels do not reach normal amounts. Some symptoms of hypoglycemia are dizziness, confusion, anxiousness, hunger and perspiration. Hypoglycemia can occur for several reasons, including skipping meals, exercising, alcohol drinking, excessive doses of diabetes medications.

In order to prevent or manage hypoglycemia, doctors recommend that people with diabetes take the correct doses of medicines at the correct times, because some medicines are known to cause hypoglycemia. People should also eat regular meals daily, exercise, and always eat during or before drinking an alcoholic beverage. Because the effects of hypoglycemia can be sudden and unexpected, doctors recommend that you keep quick-sugar foods near you at all times. Some of these foods include candy, honey, regular soda or fruit juice to help raise blood sugar levels at that moment.

Marci Sloane, MS, RD, LD/N, CDE

Article was reviewed by Marci Sloane, a registered and licensed dietitian/nutritionist and certified diabetes educator. Marci graduated with a degree in Nutrition and Physiology from Teachers College at Columbia University. Marci manages a Diabetes and Nutrition Education Center in South Florida and is the author of The Diet Game: Playing for Life!

The goal of Destination Diabetes® is to be a useful and credible resource for the more than 20 million children and adults who have diabetes in the U.S. and their families. Destination Diabetes® provides information on a wide range of diabetes health and wellness topics. Articles are written or reviewed by diabetes advisors who have experience in diabetes education.