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Whittington Health NHSUCL

Nervous system

Overview

nervous-system

Key fact:
Good control of your glucose levels and blood pressure can help protect against nerve damage.

Why do problems with the nervous system develop in diabetes?

This is caused by damage to small nerves and is also known as diabetic neuropathy.

It occurs due to:

  • persistently high blood glucose levels directly damaging small nerves
  • high blood pressure damaging small blood vessels that bring oxygen and energy to nerves.

What are the main problems?

  • Pain without injury, also known as neuropathic pain. This usually causes prickling or tingling feelings, burning sensations and sharp, stabbing or shooting pains.
  • Reduced sensation, particularly in the hands and feet. This can make people more prone to injuries.
  • Problems with digestion or bladder control. This is because there are small nerves that control the regular contractions of the gut and the tone of your bladder.
  • Problems with sudden drops in blood pressure. Small nerves in the blood vessels help to make sure the blood pressure does not drop suddenly; for example, when we stand up. This system can become disrupted in diabetes, making people feel dizzy or faint at times.
  • Problems with sexual function. Arousal is a complex process that requires multiple small nerves and blood vessels to act in a coordinated way. This process can become disrupted, causing problems with erections in men, or vaginal dryness and difficulty reaching orgasm in women.

Will I develop problems with my nervous system?

Having diabetes does not mean that you will develop diabetic neuropathy.

Of 100 people with type 2 diabetes, 20 to 30 will eventually develop diabetes-related nerve problems. It is rare to have problems in the first 10 years as most of these problems happen slowly, over several decades.

Roughly 1 in 4 men with diabetes report having problems with sex.

Good diabetes control significantly reduces the risk of nerve damage.

You can help protect your nerves by:
  • having good blood glucose, blood pressure and cholesterol levels
  • eating healthily
  • maintaining a healthy weight
  • taking regular physical activity
  • seeing your doctor or nurse every year for a foot check
  • talking to your doctor about new symptoms.

See also above: Prevention | Checks & tests | Complications | Treatment | Links