What Is Diabetic Neuropathy?  

Steven Mott by Steven Mott | Licensed since 2012
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This article was updated on: 09/15/2018

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If you have diabetes, you may be at risk for developing diabetic neuropathy, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Diabetic neuropathy is a type of nerve damage that most often affects the legs and feet, although it can occur anywhere in the body including the digestive tract, heart, and sex organs. Diabetic neuropathy can cause mild symptoms in some people, but in others, its effects can be extremely painful.

What causes diabetic neuropathy?

According to NIH, prolonged exposure to high sugar levels in the blood causes damage to nerves, and neurovascular factors can lead to damage to the blood vessels that carry oxygen and nutrients to the nerves. This combination of factors degrades the nerves over time, even interfering with their ability to transmit signals to the brain.

The National Institutes of Health lists some other factors that may contribute to diabetic neuropathy:

  • Injury to the nerves
  • Smoking and alcohol abuse
  • Autoimmune disorders that inflame the nerve cells
  • Genetic factors not related to diabetes

According to the Mayo Clinic, risk factors for developing diabetic neuropathy include:

  • Poor blood sugar control
  • Long-term diabetes (those with 25 years or more are at highest risk)
  • Concurrent kidney disease
  • Being overweight with a BMI of 24 or higher

What are common diabetic neuropathy symptoms?

There are four main types of diabetic neuropathy, the National Institutes of Health reports. Each type may affect different body parts and cause different symptoms.

Peripheral neuropathy is the most common type, usually affecting feet, legs, hands and arms first.

  • Numbness, loss of pain and temperature sensation
  • Tingling or burning
  • Extreme sensitivity to touch (even a bed sheet can feel excruciating)

Autonomic neuropathy affects nerves controlling the heart, bladder, lungs, intestines, stomach, eyes, and genitals.

  • Bladder problems
  • Constipation
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness when rising from a sitting position
  • Difficulty with eyes adjusting from light to dark conditions

Proximal neuropathy affects the thighs, hips, and buttocks.

  • Sudden, sharp pain in thighs, hips, buttocks
  • Weak, atrophied thigh muscles
  • Abdominal swelling, weight loss

Focal (Mononeuropathy) is damage to a single nerve, usually in the face or torso.

  • Difficulty focusing, double vision
  • Bell’s palsy (paralysis on one side of face)
  • Pain in chest or abdomen

Occasionally, focal presents in the wrist as carpal tunnel syndrome.

How is diabetic neuropathy treated?

According to the National Institute of Health, diabetic neuropathy treatment focuses on relieving pain, restoring function, and slowing the progression of the disease. In most cases, your doctor will recommend lifestyle changes such as modifying your diet and exercise habits, quitting smoking, and curtailing alcohol consumption.

Medications are frequently used for diabetic neuropathy treatment to manage the symptoms and complications of the disease. According to the NIH, some common medications might include:

  • Pain relievers
  • Antidepressants (known to relieve diabetic neuropathypain)
  • Antibiotic medications for urinary tract infections
  • Medications for gastrointestinal distress
  • Blood pressure medications

Does Medicare cover diabetic neuropathy and treatment for diabetic neuropathy symptoms?

Medicare may cover your doctor visits and diabetic neuropathy treatment you receive in the hospital or skilled nursing home. In addition, Medicare may also cover screening tests and specialist exams to help manage your diabetic neuropathy symptoms and prevent complications from the disease.

If you have certain conditions such as diabetic neuropathy, under Medicare you are entitled to see a foot specialist once every six months; you pay your Part B deductible and 20% coinsurance amounts. Part B also covers a yearly eye exam for diabetic retinopathy. As a diabetic, you may also be entitled to medical nutrition therapy at no cost to you if your doctor accepts Medicare assignment.

Prescription drugs for diabetic neuropathy symptoms may not be covered under Original Medicare (unless you receive them as part of your treatment as a hospital inpatient, or they’re administered to you as a hospital outpatient). If you need help paying for your medications, you may want to purchase a stand-alone Medicare Part D Prescription Drug Plan to supplement your Original Medicare, or a Medicare Advantage Prescription Drug plan.

If you’d like to learn more about minimizing your out-of-pocket costs for diabetic neuropathy treatment, I’m available to help. You can schedule a phone call or request an email with information about diabetic neuropathy coverage by clicking one of the links below. The “Compare Plans” button displays a list of plans in your area you may be eligible for.

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