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Diabetes Complications

Diabetes complications affect many diabetics in a wide range of ways.

Blindness is one complication of diabetes. [© Shutterstock, 2010]
© Shutterstock, 2010
Blindness is one complication of diabetes.

Diabetes Complications

Diabetes complications affect many diabetics in a wide range of ways. Diabetes is a disease where the glucose levels in the blood are too high. Since it is a disease of the blood, which is pumped to every part of the body, uncontrolled diabetes can have lasting effects on a wide range of areas in the body. Some common complications connected to diabetes are those that involve the cardiovascular system. The most serious of these are heart attack and stroke, but blood flow to peripheral areas are also affected. Other areas that are commonly affected by diabetes are the kidneys, eyes and neurological system. Foot, skin and mouth issues, as well as osteoporosis can also plague those with diabetes. Since the end result of all types of diabetes are high glucose levels, these complications affect those with type 1 and type 2 diabetes. By becoming aware of these possible complications, diabetics can work to decrease their risk of permanent damage due to the disease.

Heart Disease and Diabetes

According to the National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse (NDIC), diabetics are twice as likely to suffer from heart disease or a stroke, and at a younger age than those without diabetes. Additionally, diabetics who suffer a heart attack or stroke often have a more serious attack and are more likely to die. This is, in part, due to the fact that increased glucose levels often lead to more cholesterol being deposited along the walls of the arteries. The arteries become clogged and the walls of the arteries harden, which is known as artherosclerosis. These blockages can also lead to circulation problems in the legs and feet, known as peripheral artery disorder, which can increase clots and increase the risk of heart attack, stroke and amputation.

Some symptoms of, as well as a contributing factor to, heart disease are high blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Another pressing symptom is angina which is a pain that can occur in the chest, jaw, shoulder, arm or back. This pain is a sign that a blood vessel to the heart is narrowing and the blood supply is becoming cut off. The most serious sign of heart disease is a heart attack. Symptoms of this include chest, jaw, arm and back pain similar to that of angina, as well as shortness of breath, sweating, lightheadedness and nausea. Diabetes can work to mask these symptoms, however. So it becomes even more imperative that diabetics make sure their doctors are regularly monitoring their blood pressure and cholesterol levels for signs of heart disease.

Stroke and Diabetes

The NDIC maintains that fatty deposits or blood clots in the arteries of the brain or neck block or restrict blood flow in these arteries and starve the brain of oxygen and nutrients. This means that the same mechanism that cause diabetics to be at increased risk for heart disease, such as increased cholesterol deposits and hardening of the arteries, also increase their risk for stroke. Additionally, the American Diabetes Association maintains that two out of three people with diabetes suffer from high blood pressure. This can cause a break in the wall of the blood vessels in the brain, called an aneurism, and lead to a stroke. Diabetics may also be at risk for another stroke related event, called a transient ischemic attack or TIA, which occurs when the blockage in the artery to the brain is only temporary. While the affects of these temporary blockages, including sudden numbness, weakness, balance, comprehension and vision problems and headaches, are not usually permanent, their occurrence puts the person at a higher risk for a future stroke.

Diabetes Complications of the Kidneys

The main job of the kidneys is to filter waste materials out of the blood, which then exit the body in urine. As diabetes causes the blood glucose levels to rise, the kidneys begin to work harder to filter the blood. This causes protein and red blood cells to leak into the urine. There are usually no other signs until kidney disease develops over five years or more. The first symptom is usually fluid retention in the legs or around the eyes, but other kidney disease symptoms can include:

  • Poor appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Upset stomach
  • Headache
  • Generalized itching
  • Frequent hiccups
  • Foamy urine


When small amounts of protein are detected in the urine, it is referred to as microalbuminuria. Larger amounts of protein are termed macroalbuminuria. When nephropathy is diagnosed during the macroalbuminuria stage, end-stage kidney disease will usually follow soon thereafter. This would necessitate either a kidney transplant or a regular routine of kidney dialysis. Therefore, it is recommended that diabetics be regularly monitored for protein in their urine.

Diabetes Complications of the Eyes

Increased glucose levels, as well as the earlier mentioned vascular complications, mean diabetics have a 40 percent higher risk of glaucoma and 60 percent greater likelihood of cataracts, according to the American Diabetes Association. Glaucoma results when the optic nerve is damaged due to pressure building up inside the eye. Increased glucose levels, such as in uncontrolled diabetes, can bring more water into the eye, increasing this pressure, and may also cause the optic nerve to be more vulnerable to damage. High glucose levels can also cause an increase in the formation of certain substances in the eye that can deposit on the lens and cause cataracts. If circulation problems cause capillaries in the eye to become blocked, the retina begins to lose function, leading to increasingly more serious vision loss.

Neurological Complications of Diabetes

Just as excessive amount of glucose in the blood can affect the larger vessels of the heart and kidneys; it can also damage the fragile walls of the capillaries that carry nourishment to the nerves. The body naturally protects the vital areas of the body, including the head and torso, leaving the peripheral areas, such as the limbs, hands and feet, the most vulnerable to nerve and circulatory damage. According to the Mayo Clinic, it is common to see nerve damage from diabetes, also known as diabetic neuropathy, starting in the hands and feet and gradually moving upward towards the central areas of the body. This spreading can take months or years. As it spreads to other areas it can affect digestion and limb function, as well as erectile dysfunction in men. Diabetic neuropathy feels like numbness, burning, pain or tingling.

Other General Diabetes Complications

Circulation issues can also lead to other complications. Poor circulation can decrease the bodys healing abilities, leading to common complications like foot ulcers, skin and mouth infections, and gum disease. Uncontrolled diabetes can also lead to decreased bone mineral density and osteoporosis. Poor glucose control in type 2 diabetes may also increase a persons risk of developing Alzheimers disease. Many of these and the previously described complications can be lessened, if not eliminated completely, by close monitoring of glucose levels and regular checkups.

Diabetes Complications in Pregnancy

For pregnant women, diabetes, be it gestational diabetes or previously present type 1 or type 2 diabetes, brings complications particular to their situation. Uncontrolled glucose levels not only affect the womans health, but also the health and development of the unborn child. According to the Mayo Clinic, complications for a child born to a diabetic include:

  • Excess growth
  • Low blood sugar
  • Respiratory distress syndrome
  • Jaundice
  • Increased risk of type 2 diabetes later in life


For the mother, pregnancy brings addition complications on top of those of other diabetics. The increased blood pressure and protein leakage that all diabetics are at risk for can lead to a pregnancy-specific condition called preeclampsia. This can lead to life-threatening complications for the mother and the baby. Having gestational diabetes can also increase the womans risk of developing gestational diabetes in subsequent pregnancies, as well as developing type 2 diabetes after pregnancy.

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