It’s not unusual for neurologist Eva Feldman, M.D., to see patients who are experiencing pain or strange sensations in their feet. “They say, ‘My feet hurt, and they hurt worse at night when the sheets are on them.’ ”
Another common complaint she hears: “It feels like bugs are biting the bottom of my feet,” says Feldman, a professor of neurology at the University of Michigan.
A simple blood test, she says, often reveals the cause: high blood sugar. The pain and tingling in their feet are early signs of a condition called peripheral neuropathy, which is a common complication of diabetes.
For many people, these foot symptoms are “the first clear, obvious sign that someone has diabetes or prediabetes,” she says. When caught very early, both the foot pain and the elevated blood sugar can sometimes be reversed, she explains, before permanent nerve damage sets in.
That’s one good example, she and other experts say, of why it’s so important not to ignore any pain, tingling, numbness or weakness in your feet or hands or other symptoms that suggest you could have a form of neuropathy — a catch-all term for damage to nerves that branch out from our brains and spinal cords to the rest of our bodies.
Some of these nerves carry the signals that allow us to feel, for example, that our hands are near a hot stove or our shoes are too tight; others tell our muscles to move, or control processes such as digestion and blood pressure.
Neuropathy can have many causes, can affect one nerve or many, and can have different treatments and varying outlooks. It’s important to get a diagnosis so you can get the right care, the experts say.
“Neuropathy can be a chronic condition that can be accompanied by anxiety and depression,” says Norman Latov, M.D., a professor of neurology at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York. “Understanding what you have and knowing what to expect helps you focus on what needs to be done and reduces the worry and anxiety that come from fearing the unknown.”
Symptoms vary, but there are common patterns
Depending on the kind of neuropathy you have, your symptoms could include:
- Tingling or pain in your feet or hands. The pain may be burning, freezing or shooting and is often worse at night.
- Feeling like you are wearing invisible socks or gloves.
- Feeling weak or unsteady in your feet and legs.
- Extreme sensitivity to touch.
- Loss of balance and coordination.
- Muscle cramping or twitching.
- Abnormalities in pulse or blood pressure.