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Knowledge Brush-up: The Four Types of Diabetic Neuropathy

Nurses Article   (1,064 Views | 3 Replies | 1,180 Words)

J.Adderton has 27 years experience as a BSN, MSN .

7 Followers; 117 Articles; 33,894 Profile Views; 380 Posts

How do you approach diabetic neuropathy in your practice?

I frequently care for patients diagnosed with diabetic neuropathy. However, I usually place all diabetic neuropathies under one umbrella without considering the specific type and associated potential problems. This article will provide a review of the 4 types of peripheral neuropathies and distinguishing characteristics.

Knowledge Brush-up:  The Four Types of Diabetic Neuropathy
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Nurses frequently care for patients with one or more type of diabetic neuropathy.  Approximately 50% of diabetics have some degree of nerve damage and the greatest rates occur in people who have been diagnosed with diabetes for over 25 years.  The most commonly recognized symptoms of neuropathy are numbness, tingling and pain in the arms and legs. However, depending on the affected nerves, diabetic neuropathies can lead to more severe problems and even organ damage. The impact of neuropathy on quality of life is significant and may include anxiety, depression and loss of mobility. This will provide a review of not only peripheral neuropathy but will help give you an understanding of all four types of diabetic neuropathy- peripheral, autonomic, proximal and focal.

High blood glucose sustained over a long period of time is the most common cause of diabetic neuropathy. Other contributing factors include damage to blood vessels caused by high cholesterol levels, mechanical injury (i.e. carpal tunnel syndrome) and lifestyle factors, such as alcohol use or smoking.

Peripheral Neuropathy

Peripheral neuropathy, also known as distal polyneuropathy, is the most common form of diabetic neuropathy.  Nerves branch off of the spinal cord in the lumbar region and form a long network to the arms and legs. This type of neuropathy causes nerve damage typically in the legs first and then arms as the disease progresses.  It is not unusual for diabetics to have no symptoms of neuropathy, but signs are evident upon assessment. 

Peripheral neuropathy symptoms

  •  Numbness, tingling, burning or prickling sensations
  •  Sharp pains or cramps
  •  Decreased ability to feel pain or temperature changes
  •  Increased sensitivity to touch
  •  Muscle weakness
  •  Loss of reflexes (especially in the ankle)
  •  Loss of balance/coordination
  •  Serious foot problems- ulcers, infections and joint pain

These symptoms are usually worse at night. Muscle weakness may cause gait issues, increasing fall risk.  Hammertoes and collapse of the midfoot, as well as other foot deformities, may occur as the disease progresses.  Decreased sensation in the feet increases risk of blisters and sore that may cause infection.  The infection risk is increased when foot injury is not treated promptly and may spread to the bone and foot leading to amputation.  It is estimated that 50% of all such amputations if treated in time could be avoided.

Autonomic Neuropathy

This type of neuropathy damages the nerves that control involuntary body functions and interferes with messages sent from the brain to other organs and the autonomic nervous system.  Presenting symptoms will depend on the severity of nerve damage and where it has occurred.

Autonomic neuropathy symptoms

  • Orthostatic hypotension- dizziness or faintness when standing
  • Bladder problems- hesitancy, incontinence, retention and increased urinary infections
  • Sexual problems- erectile dysfunction and ejaculation problems in men, vaginal dryness, low libido and difficulty reaching orgasm in women.
  • Poor appetite, difficulties with food digestion, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, swallowing     problems and heartburn
  • Inability to recognize hypoglycemia
  • Difficulty regulating body temperature due to sweating abnormalities
  • Slow pupil reaction with difficulty adjusting to light
  • Activity intolerance due to nerve messages not received to adjust heart rate to activity  level

People who chronic poorly managed hyperglycemia are at the greatest risk of autonomic neuropathy.

Proximal Neuropathy (diabetic amyotrophy)

Proximal neuropathy begins with pain in the thighs, hips, buttocks or legs.  The pain is typically on one side of the body and more common in type 2 diabetes and in older people.  Proximal neuropathy causes weakness in the legs leading to difficulty going from sitting to standing without assistance of another person. Treatment and recovery time depends on the type of nerve damage.  

Symptoms of proximal neuropathy

  • Leg weakness
  • Difficulty standing without assistance
  • Sudden, severe pain in the hip, thigh or buttock on one side of the body
  • Overtime- weak thighs with loss of muscle
  • Abdominal swelling if abdomen affected
  • Weight loss

Focal Neuropathy (Mononeuropathy)

Focal Neuropathy is unpredictable, occurs suddenly and affects specific nerves. The affected nerve usually causes pain in the head, torso or leg and may last weeks to months. Fortunately, focal neuropathy usually resolves on its own with no long-term effects.  Older individuals are at higher risk, although diabetics at any age can have focal neuropathy.

Symptoms of focal neuropathy

  • Difficulty focusing the eye and/or double vision
  • Pain behind one eye
  • Bell’s palsy (paralysis on one side of face)
  • Severe pain in lower back or pelvis
  • Pain in front of thigh
  • Pain in chest, stomach or flank
  • Pain on the inside of the foot or outside of the shin
  • Chest or abdominal pain

The chest and abdominal pain may be mistaken for other conditions (heart disease, appendicitis etc). Entrapment syndromes, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, are also common in people with diabetes.

Treatment of Diabetic Neuropathies

First line treatment of diabetic neuropathies is long-term and consistent blood glucose management.  Additional interventions for prevention, delaying or treating diabetic neuropathies may include treating and managing high blood pressure, weight control and healthy lifestyle changes.  Prescribed medications are often used to relieve pain and may include:

  • Anti-seizure drugs- pregabalin (Lyrica), gabapentin (Neurontin) and carbamazepine (Tegretol)
  • Antidepressants- Tricyclics imipramine (Tofranil), desipramine (Norpramin)
  • SNRIs- duloxetine (Cymbalta), venlafaxine (Effexor XR)

Managing complications and restoring function

Management of complications will depend on the specific neuropathy present and may require referrals to medical specialists, physical and occupation therapists.  Complications requiring treatment may include:

  • Urinary tract problems
  • Digestive problems
  • Orthostatic hypotension
  • Muscle weakness
  • Sexual dysfunction

The cause of diabetic neuropathy is multifactorial with high blood glucose being the most common.  The effects on the body range from mild to severe with the potential to significantly impact quality of life

All four types of diabetic neuropathies can be delayed, prevented and treated with consistent management of blood glucose.  The damage caused to nerves can affect areas throughout the body, significantly impacting mobility and quality of life.  Patient education is important to promote good foot care and prompt follow-up with any problems.  Lifestyle changes, such as smoking, alcohol intake and exercise are also important in the prevention and treatment of neuropathy.

How do you approach diabetic neuropathy in your practice?

Additional Resources:

American Academy of Neurology, Evidence-based practice guidelines for painful chronic neuropathy.

National Diabetes Education Initiative, Diabetes management guidelines.

American Diabetes Association- Resources for professionals

A nurse for over years and the privilege to work in a variety of nursing areas. Enjoys writing about what she encounters in her daily nursing practice.

7 Followers; 117 Articles; 33,894 Profile Views; 380 Posts

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Kaisu has 2 years experience.

144 Posts; 2,012 Profile Views

Amazing...saving to my drive for reference.

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J.Adderton has 27 years experience as a BSN, MSN.

7 Followers; 117 Articles; 380 Posts; 33,894 Profile Views

Thanks, glad it is useful.  Whenever I have to "google" or research something at work, I usually write about it.  I did not remember types.


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I've been a Type I diabetic for 49 years. I was recently diagnosed with Charcot Foot in a slightly abnormal presentation. I did not have the onset symptoms and mine appeared after a septic abscess formed in my foot, caused by small bone chips. I had sore feet for over a year, but was told it was only fallen/collapsed arches. I DO have neuropathy in the area right below my toes on both feet. However, I can still feel in all areas of my feet, and don't have much numbness and tingling so when I was told I had Charcot, and it was caused by neuropathy, I was confused, because all the literature described it as occurring in diabetics who couldn't feel their feet, and developed ulcers. Their feet were also already misshapen, often with the rocker bottom appearance. My podiatrist, who was a Godsend, explained that my neuropathy was affecting the nerves inside my foot and not necessarily the ones that affected my feeling. He said the breakdown of the nerves caused the blood vessels and arteries to flood the foot with extra blood, therefore breaking down the calcium in the bone, and then causing the joints to disintegrate. Now that's a very Reader's Digest explanation of what he told me, so not sure if I got everything correct. I'm sharing this with you because obviously neuropathy can strike in places patients may not even be aware of, as those described in your article. And because mine was an unusual presentation (no one has figured out yet how the infection developed without any outside presentations like fever, swelling, etc.) that any information I can share may help others. I was a registered nurse, working the floor in a med/surg unit for 5 years, and obviously this has grounded me to become temporarily disabled. I hope to get back to work before the end of the year, obviously in a not so physical job. Thank you for your article and helping to raise awareness of the different types of neuropathy out there. I wasn't even aware of the last 2 or hadn't heard anything about them.

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