Numbness and tingling in the hands, fingers and extremities is a symptom of diabetes caused by nerve damage known as diabetic neuropathies. This nerve damage is in turn caused by heightened levels of glucose in the blood which is the main symptom of both types of diabetes. The exact mechanism through which prolonged exposure to glucose causes nerve damage is unknown but currently being researched. It may be a result of the direct effect that glucose has on the nerves, or it may be that the result of other effects such as poor circulation. It is likely that it is a combination of factors that varies from case to case.
The sensation of this numbness and tingling has been likened to that of sleeping on your hands after waking up. This causes a similar loss of sensation that makes your hands or feet feel ‘bloated’ and ‘dead’. At the same time you might experience coldness in the area and possibly a rash. If the numbness and tingling occurs every time you sit down, is worse in the morning and at night, occurs alongside pain in the forearms and fingers and/or is also joined by a rash or dizziness; all these things point to a high likelihood of the tingling being related to diabetes.
Diabetic neuropathy is one of the later symptoms of diabetes and is a cause for concern as in some extreme cases it can lead to the loss of those extremities. At the same time it is associated with difficulties with eyesight which is also one of the more serious symptoms of diabetes. As such it is better to identify the existence of diabetes before you notice numbness or tingling. However once you do notice those things it is important to get to a doctor as soon as possible.
Other symptoms to look out for then in conjunction with/before the onset of the numbness include continuous urination and an unquenchable thirst. Both of these symptoms are caused by the body trying to ‘flush’ out the extra glucose in the blood, and these are often what alerts doctors and patients to the presence of diabetes. If you notice you are excessively thirsty then you should see a doctor before the onset of nerve damage. If it is not diabetes it might be related to other serious conditions. Two of the other most common warning signs of diabetes are sudden weight loss and tiredness. Both of these are caused by either the lack of insulin (type 1 diabetes) or the ability to utilise it (type 2). As insulin is the hormone used to convert glucose into energy, this is what causes the excess glucose in the body. At the same time it of course leaves the body without energy causing the patient to a) feel more exhausted and b) burn fat stores for more energy.
Numbness and tingling on their own do also not necessarily point to diabetes and there are other possible causes. It may be a result of unrelated poor circulation, or unrelated nerve damage (for example eating too much vitamin B6 can cause nerve damage, as can Raynaud’s phenomenon – a fascinating condition where strong emotions and temperatures cause blood vessels to spasm, as well as many other conditions.
The diabetic neuropathy might also present itself in different ways through different forms. Tingling in the extremities is known as ‘peripheral neuropathy’ but diabetic neuropathy can also cause damage elsewhere. Autonomic neuropathy for example causes changes in digestion, bowel and bladder functions as well as perspiration and sexual responses. This is what often causes heart conditions in diabetics by damaging the nerves connected to the heart and that control blood pressure. This can also damage the eyes and cause ‘hypoglycemia unawareness’ where patients are no longer able to tell when they have low blood glucose.
Proximal neuropathy meanwhile causes pains in the hips, thighs, buttocks and legs and finally focal neuropathy can result in the sudden weakness of a nerve or group of nerves causing pain, weakness, tingling or malfunction at any point in the body.
If you experience tingling sensations or any of the other forms of diabetic neuropathy then you should see a doctor immediately. If you are already undergoing treatment for diabetes then you might need to increase your dosage while if you are not this might well point to an advanced form of diabetes. Be always vigilant however in listening to your body for other signs of diabetes, particularly if you have a history of diabetes in your family. It is far better to ‘catch’ diabetes before it progresses to neuropathy as nerve damage may be irreversible.