The importance of foot care in diabetes
If you’re diabetic, you may or may not know that looking after your feet is an essential part of managing your diabetes.
What has your feet got to do with diabetes you may ask, well it turns out that diabetes can lead to serious foot complications, and if you didn’t know this, take some time to read our guide on how to prevent these complications and the best way to take care of your feet.
Why are diabetics at risk of serious foot complications?
Diabetes is an often misunderstood condition that has a range of complications, some of which are blood circulation problems and nerve damage. These complications in particular can cause problems for the feet. Lack of blood supply to this part of the body can cause pain and means that cuts and sores may not heal properly.
Nerve damage caused by high blood sugar, also known as diabetic neuropathy, predominantly affects the legs and feet. This can cause a loss of sensation or numbness in these parts of the body, and because of this, you may not feel any injury to your feet. Minor cuts can escalate into a serious infection if you’re unaware of the injury and have not treated it properly.
This is why it’s so important to keep an eye on your feet regularly and treat any injuries or other foot problems as soon as they arise.
What are the signs of foot problems?
There are a number of things to look out for when checking your feet, and you should contact your GP straight away if you spot any problems.
Any tingling or numbness, pain, cramps or aches, cold or hot sensations should be taken notice of and addressed urgently, but if you have nerve damage you may not have any feeling and it can be difficult to spot problems.
Visual signs of foot complications include swelling of the feet, sores, blisters or wounds (check them regularly to see if they are healing properly), changes in the colour or shape of your feet, hair loss on your legs or feet and skin that is shiny and smooth. If your feet no longer sweat, this is also a sign that there could be a problem.
If wounds on your feet are showing signs of infection, seek urgent medical help. Signs of infection include a foul smell coming from the wound, swelling, a hot or warm sensation, changes in colour, and pus that is draining from a wound.
If left untreated, minor cuts, sores, and infections can become serious - in a worst-case scenario, amputation of the feet and legs can happen. This is more likely to happen if diabetes is unmanaged and there are serious complications such as abscesses or gangrene (when the blood flow to this area is cut off, the tissue dies which may lead to amputation).
As we mentioned earlier, nerve damage is a very real risk in cases of unmanaged diabetes, and Charcot foot is a complication of this.
Peripheral neuropathy can occur when high blood sugar damages the blood vessels that supply the nerves. As a result of this, you can lose sensation in your hands and feet making it less likely that you’ll notice any injuries, even broken or fractured bones. Charcot foot usually occurs if a person has sprained, broken, or fractured their foot and continues to walk on it as they have no or little feeling due to peripheral neuropathy.
Although it's rare, Charcot foot is very serious and if you notice any of the below symptoms, take the weight off your foot immediately and seek medical help.
Symptoms of Charcot foot include:
- Changes in the shape or colour of the foot
- The affected foot may feel warm
Fortunately, these complications can be prevented if diabetes is well managed.
How to look after your feet if you have diabetes
Checking your feet (and don’t forget toenails) when you have diabetes should be routine. As part of your diabetes care, you can receive a free annual foot check by your GP which will include an examination and a chance to discuss any problems you may be having with your feet.
If you’re offered an annual foot check, definitely take it up as it helps to prevent any serious complications and helps you understand what problems you should be looking out for and how to care for your feet.
Here are a few tips for caring for your feet in general but especially if you’re diabetic:
- Clean your feet every day and dry them thoroughly, especially between your toes to avoid fungal infections such as Athlete’s foot or fungal nail
- Keep toenails trimmed - trim the nail straight across to avoid ingrown toenails
- Always wear shoes that fit well and are comfortable to avoid foot injuries and check your shoes for any objects that could pierce your foot
- Moisturise your feet every day (but not between your toes) to avoid the skin on your feet becoming dry
- Check your feet daily for any cuts, grazes, blisters, sores, or any other injuries
Other things you can do to prevent foot complications if you have diabetes include living well and getting your diabetes under control. Eating healthily, keeping active and maintaining a healthy weight can help to keep other important health numbers down like blood pressure and cholesterol which will also help to prevent blood circulation problems.
If you have blood circulation problems and you smoke, now is the time to stop. As we know now, lack of blood supply to the feet is responsible for a lot of the foot complications mentioned earlier, particularly amputation. Smoking causes blood circulation problems and therefore increases your risk of amputation if you’re diabetic. Seek help for quitting smoking if you’re struggling.
And finally, the most important thing you can do is manage your diabetes well. All of the above problems are more likely to happen if your blood glucose levels aren’t under control. There are lots of devices available to help manage diabetes much easier than in the past, the Freestyle Libre glucose monitoring system, for example, is painless and doesn’t require finger pricking to draw blood, it instead uses a scannable sensor that sticks to the arm and gives a blood glucose reading.
If you suspect you have diabetes, it’s important to get a diagnosis as soon as possible. Living with undiagnosed and untreated diabetes is a great risk. If you’re unsure, take a look at these 10 early signs of type 2 diabetes.