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What Makes Diabetes Painful?

Author: Scott Fishman, M. D., Pain Management Specialist

Diabetes can destroy small blood vessels, which in turn can damage the nervous system, and these damaged nerves can cause pain.

The most common forms of diabetes, juvenile and adult onset, can damage many organs and systems. Diabetes can make it hard to digest food, cause heart disease, and destroy small blood vessels, while the nervous system becomes an innocent, injured bystander. The disease’s most common pain syndrome is diabetic neuropathy.

The pain arises from nerves that are injured or malfunctioning. These crippled fibers can be found anywhere along their path, from the tip of the toe to the brain. Diabetes eats away at the thread-thin blood vessels that feed delicate nerve cells.

This is why diabetes pain usually strikes first in the hands and feet. A common pain syndrome from diabetes is described as “stocking and glove” pain because it appears in the hands and feet and usually makes it painful to wear gloves or socks.

Diabetes alters sensation in the smallest nerves, which happen to lie at the end of the peripheral nervous system, in the hands and feet. Diabetes starves these tiny nerves. As a result, the nervous system becomes confused about what is and isn’t painful. Stockings, gloves – anything that touches skin served by these tiny, hypersensitive nerves – is going to send signals to the spinal cord, where they may be mistaken for pain.