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Diabetes Mellitus is a condition in which the body is not able to properly metabolize blood sugar (glucose), leading to problems that influence many other organ systems. Glucose is one of the body’s main sources of energy, and insulin, a hormone secreted by the pancreas, helps your muscles and organs consume it.
The main types of diabetes are type 1, which usually starts during childhood, and type 2, which more commonly starts during adulthood. In type 1 diabetes, the pancreas fails to produce enough insulin to control your blood sugar. In type 2 diabetes, obesity and other genetic factors eventually lead to the inability of insulin to act (insulin resistance). In both types, problems start developing when blood sugar becomes too high, for too long.
Those who fail to put their blood sugar under control may end up with problems impacting the eyes, teeth, kidneys, heart, blood vessels, nervous system, and others. In this article, we discuss 8 common complications of diabetes that can be either delayed or prevented by good blood sugar control.
High blood sugar can damage blood vessels and may affect the heart. It is worth knowing that heart disease is in fact the leading cause of death in diabetic people. Damage to the coronary arteries (the blood vessels supplying the heart) can eventually lead to their narrowing, which might cause a heart attack. In the same manner, blood vessels in the brain might also become too narrow, leading to a stroke. By not controlling your blood sugar levels, cholesterol levels, and blood pressure, you might be at higher risk of developing these fatal complications.
The medical term used to describe kidney disease in diabetics is “diabetic nephropathy”. Diabetes is the most common cause of kidney failure requiring dialysis worldwide. Uncontrolled blood sugar damages the small vessels going into the kidneys to filter waste, causing it to build up in the bloodstream. Doctors always monitor kidney function in diabetic patients by measuring protein in the urine (microalbuminuria). If your doctor suspects that kidney damage is ensuing, they might consider adjusting your medications and diet to slow down the process.
Also known medically as “diabetic neuropathy”. Nerves receive oxygen and nutrients from tiny blood vessels that supply them. Consistently high blood sugar causes these vessels to narrow down leading to nerve damage. This neuropathy manifests in several forms. When the nerves of the limbs are affected, the person might start losing tactile sensation, feel tingling, or even pain in the hands and feet (this is called peripheral neuropathy). Erectile dysfunction is also another manifestation of the damage sustained by the nerves controlling the genitals.
“Diabetic foot” is actually a complication of diabetic neuropathy, however, it deserves a separate mention for being a very serious and easily preventable complication. Peripheral neuropathy could, as already mentioned, lead to loss of sensation in the limbs. Wounds in the feet can many times go unnoticed, and this may cause serious infections eventually requiring amputation of the toes or even the whole leg. Diabetic people are 25 more likely to need an amputation than non-diabetic people. Extensive education about foot care is vital for the prevention of long term foot complications of diabetes.
Known as “diabetic retinopathy”, a leading cause of blindness worldwide. Longstanding uncontrolled blood sugar can lead to a spectrum of eye diseases, such as cataracts, disturbed vision, and even blindness. Yearly check-ups are recommended to keep your eye health in check.
Diabetic people are at a higher risk of developing inflammation of the gums, also called “periodontitis”. Recent studies suggest a two-way relationship between diabetes and periodontitis, in which each condition can worsen the other. Research has also found that diabetic individuals with periodontitis are more likely to develop kidney and heart complications. Yearly dental check-ups are recommended to prevent and treat this condition.
Expecting mothers who have diabetes are strongly urged to keep their blood sugar levels under control, as hyperglycemia can be dangerous to both mother and child. Babies exposed to high blood glucose during pregnancy might be born overweight and are at higher risk of developing diabetes mellitus later in their life.
Diabetes seems to increase the likelihood of hospitalization, need for intensive care, and the rate of death in people who contract COVID-19. Indeed, the impaired immune function associated with poor blood sugar control puts diabetics at risk of a worse prognosis. Good glycemic control can help maintain a normal immune function and reduce this risk.
Strict blood sugar control is not always easy to achieve, however, it is necessary to prevent and delay the complications of diabetes. Regular follow up, proper education, and compliance to diet and medication are crucial for all diabetic individuals to live a long and happy life, free of complications.
About the Author:
Mersad Alimoradi is a medical doctor specializing in general surgery, with a big interest in academia. He is passionate about spreading medical knowledge and making it accessible to everyone. He has received his medical degree from the Lebanese University, in Beirut, and currently works as a physician and researcher in the country's university hospitals.
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