How does diabetes lead to chronic joint pain?

It’s no secret to most of us living with diabetes that the disease impacts our lives in many different ways, including increasing the risk of developing a host of diabetes-related health complications. The most talked about are cardiovascular disease, kidney disease and diabetes-related nerve damage.

In this post, we’ll examine another complication related to diabetes called diabetic arthropathy, which is a fancy way of saying damage to the joints that often results in chronic pain.

Diabetic arthropathy comes in a variety of different forms, some of which are directly related to diabetes and blood sugar management. Others are linked to other diabetes-related health factors, such as obesity and arterial disease. Regardless, if you’re living with diabetes, you and your joints are at risk of developing some serious and often painful conditions.

The link between diabetes and joint pain

Though they are medically considered to be independent conditions, there is no question that there is a link between diabetes and joint pain. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 47% (nearly half!) of all people suffering from arthritis also have diabetes. Additionally, according to the American Arthritis Foundation, individuals with diabetes are twice as likely to develop arthritis and debilitating joint pain if their diabetes is left unmanaged. These figures can’t be ignored and point to a clear connection between diabetes and joint complications.

What is Diabetic Arthropathy?

The term is actually used to describe a variety of different joint disorders. What they all have in common, however, is a deterioration of the protective cushion between the joints leading to painful bone-on-bone friction when actively moving. Diabetic arthropathy is unlike traumatic bone injuries because it occurs very gradually over time. In fact, there are often symptoms the process has begun, including:

– Thickening of the skin

– Pain in the shoulder joints

– The onset of carpal tunnel syndrome

– Changes in the look and feel of the feet

What follows are some of the more common forms of diabetic arthropathy, and how poorly managed diabetes and related factors contribute to them.

Charcot’s Joint

Charcot’s Joint, also called neuropathic arthropathy, describes a condition in which the bones, joints and soft tissue degenerate due to diabetic nerve damage. Here’s how. Charcot’s Joint occurs in the feet and ankles, where diabetic nerve damage can lead to numbness and a loss of feeling. When this happens, it’s very easy for someone to twist and injure ligaments in the feet and ankles without realizing it.

Unfortunately, walking around on damaged feet puts added pressure on the joints, eventually causing them to wear down. In some cases, the damage is so severe it leads to physical deformities in the foot and can even require amputation. The good news is that serious damage from Charcot’s Joint can be prevented with early detection. Signs you might be suffering from the disorder include:

– Pain in the ankle joints

– Swelling or redness

– Numbness or tingling in the feet

– An area that feels warm to the touch

– Changes in the appearance of the feet

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, see your doctor right away. Treatment might include limiting activity and wearing orthotic footwear.

Osteoarthritis (OA)

This is the most common form of arthritis and a frequent health concern for individuals with Type 2 diabetes. While some recent studies indicate a possible connection between hyperglycemia and joint cartilage health, there is no scientifically proven direct correlation as of yet. However, what is known is that obesity, highly common among those with Type 2 diabetes, is a direct contributor to osteoarthritis.

It's common for joints to experience some deterioration as we age but being overweight greatly compounds the damage. For example, the American Arthritis Foundation points out that every pound a person is overweight places 4 pounds of extra pressure on the knees. Do the math. If a person is 20 pounds overweight that’s an extra 80 pounds of pressure. Someone who is 50 pounds overweight is slamming down an extra 200 pounds of pressure on the knees.

Over time, the joints just can’t handle the load and gradually wear down, leading to chronic pain. So, keeping your weight in check isn’t just good for blood sugar management, it will also help you avoid or delay osteoarthritis. Common symptoms of OA include:

– Stiff or sore joints following inactivity or high activity

– Limited range of motion that often eases a bit with movement

– Click or grating sensation

– Swelling, pain or tenderness around the joint

Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA)

Rheumatoid arthritis is an inflammatory condition caused by an autoimmune disorder. Sound familiar? Type 1 diabetes is also an autoimmune condition, and both conditions share the same two inflammatory markers - increased levels of interleukin-6 and C-reactive protein.

While RA shares similar physical symptoms with osteoarthritis, it is not caused by excess weight. In fact, the precise causes remain unknown. But as with Type 1 diabetes, there is no way to reverse or cure rheumatoid arthritis. Pain and swelling are the primary symptoms of RA, so the focus for doctors becomes reducing inflammation with prescribed medications, such as Humira, Embrel and Remicade. One interesting side note is that some studies have shown these medications may play a role in reducing the risk of Type 2 diabetes.

Can I reduce my risk of diabetic arthropathy?

The longer you’ve been living with diabetes, the greater your risk of developing arthropathy becomes. You might not be able to prevent joint damage, but there are two keys to minimizing damage and discomfort.

  1. Proper blood sugar management. Test your blood sugar regularly using a glucose meterand test strips, or a continuous glucose monitoring device (CGM) prescribed by your diabetes physician. Take medications as directed by your doctor, including insulin injections by syringe or pen. Eat a diabetes-healthy diet, maintain a healthy weight, and fit in 150 minutes of moderate activity each week.
  1. Catch diabetic arthropathy early. While joint damage is not reversible, the sooner you address the problem, the better the prognosis is for slowing its progress and minimizing pain. If you are living with diabetes and have any symptoms of joint discomfort, bring it up with your diabetes physician who can help you assess your personal risk of joint damage and the steps you can take to minimize it.

We hope you found this post helpful. At Diabetic Warehouse, we’re committed to keeping you informed with regular news and updates impacting the diabetes community. We’re also here to help you improve blood sugar control with a complete online selection of diabetic supplies and equipment at prices up to 65% less than local pharmacies and other suppliers.

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