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There are many reasons to get serious about controlling your blood sugar, and though diabetic foot problems may not immediately spring to mind, they should be at the top of your list of concerns. After all, foot issues so often begin as a small change, but since you use your feet so much each and every day, they can develop into something worse before you know it.
Not every diabetic will suffer from a foot problem, but then again, some will struggle with them more than any other diabetes complication. The first step is to understand just how diabetes targets the feet, and how to make up for that weakness in healthy ways.
Why Does Diabetes Cause Foot Problems?
Blood sugar and foot problems may seem like an unlikely pairing, but in fact, complications in the feet are common consequences of unchecked diabetes. The root of the problem lies in two diabetes side effects — neuropathy and circulation issues.
- Neuropathy: When your blood sugar is left too high for too long, your nerve fibers could begin to sustain damage. As they are damaged, they lose function, and you may notice changes in sensations in your extremities. Pain, numbness, and tingling are common.If you lose sensitivity in your feet, it follows that you won’t be able to detect a foot injury as well or as quickly as you should. A scrape or blister could go unnoticed until it becomes infected, and that will make it much more difficult to treat. Nerve damage can also cause your feet to become exceedingly dry, which can lead to cracks and splits that raise your risk of infection.
- Peripheral Vascular Disease: The other piece of the puzzle is poor circulation. Peripheral vascular disease refers to the blood vessel damage caused by uncontrolled blood sugar, which makes it more difficult for blood to flow around your body. The result is much slower healing in the extremities — infections will tend to stretch on, or worsen into gangrene or ulcers because new blood cannot reach the tissue efficiently.
Types of Foot Problems to Watch For
When you live with diabetes, even small health issues can spin out of control quickly. Minor foot problems, like fungal infections or blisters, won’t respond to the same treatment and healing schedule that a non-diabetic would need, and so it’s crucial to treat even the smallest foot issues promptly. Here are some of the most common foot issues in diabetics:
A particularly painful and unsightly diabetic foot problem, ulcers are a product of neuropathy, peripheral vascular disease, and too much pressure. They happen when nerve damage causes the muscles in the foot to lag, the foot becomes misaligned, and a certain area receives so much pressure that the skin breaks and infection develops.
Experts estimate that around 10% of diabetics will experience foot ulcers. Many of the cases can be managed with swift treatment and good after care, but if a foot ulcer gets out of control, complicated hospital care will be necessary — perhaps even amputation.
Calluses are hard areas on the soles and sides of the feet, where skin has toughened under the pressure of your step. Some degree of callus is normal for everyone — after all, your feet do support the weight of your body every day — but they can become more troublesome for diabetics.
Although calluses don’t present as much of a threat as infection, you need to treat them right to avoid splitting the skin and making things worse. Never try to cut a callus off your foot — that is sure to cause a problem.
There are a variety of fungal infections that could invade your feet (athlete’s foot is one of the most common) and cause itching, redness, and cracking in the skin. In other cases, a fungus could infect your nails, coloring them yellow or brown, and causing them to thicken and chip away.
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Fungal infection are often treated with topical cream and oral medication to soothe the symptoms from the outside, and clear out the invader from the inside. Nail fungal infections are typically more difficult to cure than fungal infections that target the skin.
Blisters are common; most people will deal with them at one point or another, especially if they walk or run a lot. Blisters tend to develop when you wear poorly-fitting shoes or shoes without socks – your feet are more likely to rub against the shoes in these cases.
The first rule of thumb when it comes to treating blisters is not to pop them. The skin covering the blister is an important layer of protection against infection. Instead, the key is to protect the site while it naturally heals, with careful cleaning and a bandage.
There are several other foot problems that may pop up, like hammertoes, corns, or bunions. If you notice any foot changes, whether or not bleeding or skin cracking is involved, you should see your doctor right away. It’s surprising how quickly a minor discomfort can turn into a major problem.
Tips to Keep your Feet Clean, Safe, and Healthy
You may not be able to cure your diabetes, but you can adjust your home routine to help keep the condition under control. The most important thing you can do is control your blood sugar, but good foot care involves the right footwear, careful hygiene, and healthy lifestyle choices, too.
Wear the Right Shoes
Since so many of the most common foot problems are brought on by poorly fitting shoes, the right footwear can make a huge difference in your risk for foot complications. Comfortable shoes that keep your feet well-aligned are the best choices, and you can get soft insoles and cushions to place on pressure points inside the shoe for even more comfort.
Talk to your doctor about seeing an orthotics specialist if you’re having trouble finding good shoes.
Clean Your Feet Often
Warm water, a mild soap, and a few minutes a couple of times each day is all you need to keep your feet clean. Be gentle and moderate — scrubbing is too harsh, hot water can irritate or burn your skin, and soaking your feet is a recipe for trouble. Test the water with your elbow (since your hands can suffer nerve damage as well), and just use your hands to soap up your feet. Be sure to dry off thoroughly, since moisture is a breeding ground for bacteria and fungus.
Take a Closer Look
Diabetics should get used to looking closely at their feet for any signs of trouble, and it’s easiest to do so when you’re cleaning them in the morning or a night. Check in between your toes for any redness or cracks, as well as the heel and ball of your foot (pressure points with cracked skin that could invite ulcers). If you have a hard time seeing every nook and cranny, use a small mirror to help you get a better look.
Stop SmokingSmoking is a huge threat to foot health, because of the way it interferes with circulation. By shrinking the small blood vessels, it interferes with blood flow to the feet, and delays healing. In fact, the majority of diabetics who need to have a limb amputated are smokers. There are other risks associated with smoking with diabetes as well — the sooner you can give up the habit, the more likely you can manage your diabetes without dangerous complications.
When it comes to your feet, it’s always better to be safe than sorry. Extra-wide shoes may not be as stylish as the season’s trend in footwear, and it can be a pain to monitor your feet multiple times a day, but it’s well worth it in the end. Once you’ve lost foot function to a deformity or amputation, there’s no going back. Take good care of your feet now, and they’ll take care of you for years to come.