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5 Steps to Managing Diabetes Comlications

Diabetes Complications

If not controlled, diabetes can cause a host of complications that can affect nearly every organ in the body. They include:

  • The heart and blood vessels
  • The eyes
  • The kidneys
  • The nerves
  • The gums and teeth

Heart Disease and Blood Vessel Disease

Heart disease and blood vessel disease are the biggest complications that people with uncontrolled diabetes face. Approximately 65% of death from diabetes is due to heart disease and stroke. Diabetes can also cause poor blood flow in the legs and feet (peripheral artery disease).

Many studies show that controlling diabetes can prevent or stop the progression of heart and blood vessel disease.

Learn more about heart and blood vessel disease in people with diabetes.

Blood vessel damage or nerve damage (see below) may also lead to foot problems that can lead to amputations. More than 60% of leg and foot amputations not related to an injury are due to diabetes.

Learn more about diabetes foot problems.

Diabetes and the Eyes

Diabetes is the leading cause of blindness in the U.S. It can cause a number of eye problems, some of which can lead to blindness if not addressed. They include:

  • Glaucoma
  • Cataracts
  • Diabetic retinopathy

Studies show that regular eye exams and timely treatment of diabetes-related eye problems could prevent up to 90% of diabetes-related blindness.

Learn more about diabetes-related eye disease.

Kidney Disease

Diabetes is the leading cause of kidney failure in adults in the U.S. Drugs that lower blood pressure (even if you don't have high blood pressure) can lower risk of kidney failure by 33%.

Learn more about diabetes-related kidney disease.

Diabetes and Your Nerves

Over time, high blood glucose levels can harm the nerves. This can lead to loss of sensation or feeling (usually starting in the toes) or pain and burning of the feet.

Diabetes related nerve damage can also cause pain in the legs, arms, and hands, and can cause problems with digestion, going to the bathroom, or having sex.

Learn more about diabetes-related nerve damage.

Your Teeth

People with diabetes are at high risk for gum disease. Keeping your diabetes under control, seeing your dentist regularly, and taking good daily care of your teeth can prevent gum disease and tooth loss.

Learn more about diabetes and your teeth and gums.

What Causes These Complications of Diabetes?

Diabetes complications are caused by damage to the blood vessels, nerves, or both.

What Are the Symptoms?

Symptoms vary depending on the diabetes complication that you have. You may have:

  • No symptoms if you have heart disease or atherosclerosis of a large blood vessel, unless you have a heart attack or stoke. Disease of the large blood vessels in your legs may cause problems with blood circulation, leading to leg cramps, changes in skin color, and decreased sensation.
  • Vision problems, vision loss, or pain in your eye if you have diabetic eye disease
  • No symptoms if you have early diabetes-related kidney disease. Swelling of the legs and feet occur in more advanced stages of kidney failure.
  • Tingling, numbness, burning, or shooting or stabbing pain in the feet, hands, or other parts of your body, if the nerves are affected by diabetes (peripheral diabetic neuropathy). If the nerves that control internal organs are damaged (autonomic neuropathy), you may have sexual problems, digestive problems (a condition called gastroparesis); difficulty sensing when your bladder is full; dizziness, fainting, or difficulty knowing when your blood sugar is low.

How Can I Prevent Myself From Having Complications From Diabetes?

When complications are found early, you might only have to take medication to prevent progression of the disease. Only minor lifestyle changes may be necessary. For example, if you have early diabetic nephropathy, you can take medication to prevent further damage. Early treatment for a complication and keeping your blood sugar levels within a safe range can help slow the progression of your complication and may prevent other complications from developing.

How Are Diabetes Complications Treated?

Treatment focuses on slowing the progression of the damage. That may include medication, surgery, or other treatment options.

But the most important treatment to slow the progression of diabetes complications is to keep your blood sugar levels tightly in control and to treat high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

Reviewed by Certified Diabetes Educators in the Department of Patient Education and Health Information and by physicians in the Department of Endocrinology at The Cleveland Clinic.

Edited by Brunilda Nazario, MD, October 2006.
Portions of this page © The Cleveland Clinic 2000-2003.

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