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What to Know About Diabetes

There are two major forms of diabetes, both of which are related to insulin production in the body. Diabetes affects many Americans and requires close monitoring and management throughout life. 

  • Type I. Often setting in during childhood, type 1 diabetes is less common. It occurs when there is not enough insulin produced by the body to survive and regulate blood glucose levels. A patient with diabetes must administer insulin themselves as needed.  
  • Type II. This form of diabetes is more common and can develop throughout life, but is frequently seen in patients experiencing an above average body mass index. Some insulin is produced but the body continues to grow more resistant to it. 

Both type 1 and type 2 diabetes have severe ramifications both for an individual and the healthcare system. 

  • The American Diabetes Association estimated that over 34 million Americans have type 1 or type 2 diabetes. 
  • Every year, 1.5 million Americans are diagnosed with diabetes. 

The good news about diabetes is that it is manageable and, when handled properly with care and attention, doesn’t have to impact one’s life entirely. Let’s take a look at one of the more common symptoms in people with diabetes. 

Why do swollen legs occur with diabetes? 

Over time, diabetes can damage the blood vessels because it causes high levels of blood sugar to accumulate without the cells properly absorbing it. As blood vessels become increasingly damaged throughout life with poorly managed diabetes, circulation becomes less efficient, causing the vessels to grow increasingly damaged. Additionally, high blood sugar levels makes fighting infection more difficult because bacteria thrives on sugar.  It’s a vicious cycle, one that often lends itself to leg swelling. Diabetes can lead to other things that cause leg swelling, such as:

  • Poor circulation
  • Heart problems like arrhythmias, palpitations or heart disease
  • Kidney problems
  • Side effects of certain medications

Swelling in the legs, feet, or ankles is also referred to as an edema. If an injury to one of the lower extremities occurs, it can take longer to heal because of the poor circulation. An individual with poor circulation due to diabetes may not be aware of an injury on their foot, ankle or leg because they lack feeling. Not addressing the wound can cause fluid to build up as the body tries to inefficiently heal itself. 

How to Treat Swelling from Diabetes

Swelling is certainly uncomfortable and can also be painful. It can severely impact one’s quality of life and prevent them from exercising, working and socializing. Fortunately, there are numerous treatments that can minimize swelling in legs, feet and ankles. Many are simply lifestyle swaps whereas others are more situational and can be used when this symptom arises. Try these to reduce the swelling in legs from type 1 or type 2 diabetes: 

  • Compression socks. You can purchase compression socks over the counter at any health store. These socks slide on over the calves and apply the right amount of pressure to the legs and ankles to minimize fluid build up. Make sure the compression socks you choose aren’t too tight where they are leaving deep impressions on your skin – this can actually be a detriment to improving circulation. Start with light compression and work your way up, if need be. 
  • Keep your swollen foot or swollen leg elevated. Whenever you are seated or lying down, prop up some pillows or a stool to set your affected extremity on. This will help fluid run from the leg back to the body while reducing the workload on the cardiovascular system. 
  • Staying hydrated. It might seem counterintuitive, but consuming more fluid can help swelling go down. Drinking an adequate amount of water for your body weight each day and avoiding dehydrating drinks like alcohol or soda will prompt your body to urinate more, releasing more fluids and flushing out toxins. Water acts as a great equalizer too, giving blood sugar levels a better chance at remaining regular. 
  • Regular exercise. This helps keep your body weight at a healthier level, which can minimize the side effects of diabetes and lower your risk of experiencing other side effects, including leg swelling. Exercising just thirty minutes a day (that’s 1/48th of your day) has the power to lower your overall body mass index. 
  • Cut back on salt intake and follow a healthy diet. Salt naturally requires more water to process and can cause our bodies to retain water. A healthy diet with limited salt intake keeps our systems running more smoothly. 
  • Don’t sit for long periods of time. A sedentary lifestyle can lead to all sorts of health issues but can certainly exacerbate swelling in the legs. Even just a slight increase in heart rate gets blood pumping more quickly and moving around the body. 

Risk Factors of Diabetes

Living with swollen legs may eventually lead to the development of other health complications. These complications are often a result of prolonged, unchecked diabetes, consistently high blood sugar levels, fluid buildup in the lower legs and necropsy of the flesh. Here are some common complications resulting from diabetes: 

  • Ulcers. Swollen hot spots related to immobility can become infected and take a long time to heal. 
  • Diabetic neuropathy. This term refers to the nerve damage that can happen overtime as blood vessels are damaged. This can lead to what’s known as a ‘diabetic foot’ which refers to the chronic feeling of numbness or tingling in the affected foot. 
  • Amputation. If a swollen leg is left untreated or is so severe that it can no longer be managed through regular means, amputation may have to take place to prevent gangrene. This may be the worst complication of diabetes’ swollen leg symptom and is certainly life altering. 
  • Infected wounds. If your leg or foot is swollen and experiencing numbness, you may be unaware of potential wounds or injuries that occur to that area. Daily foot care is necessary to reduce the risk of other complications like foot ulcers. 

Living with Diabetes 

Many people with diabetes try to hide their condition, however, it is quite common amongst Americans. Developing meaningful, honest relationships both with a care provider and those around you can help life improve significantly. Here are a few key things to implement in your life if you are someone with diabetes: 

  • Find a doctor you trust.

    Use UCF Health’s patient portal to find an internal medicine doctor near you. Establish a connection with a primary care physician who can get to know you and your medical background so that he or she may better treat you going forward. 
  • Introduce healthy lifestyle practices.

    It’s never too late, or too early, to pick up some healthy lifestyle practices, like walking or cutting out nicotine use. Ask for help via support groups if you’re working to eliminate something or join a club who shares the same interests. 
  • Take the time to prioritize your health.

    Living with diabetes will take some time out of each day, but with a short, conscious investment in your own health, this doesn’t have to be so daunting. Proactive management prevents further, life-threatening problems down the road and can help you familiarize yourself with the disease. 
  • Limit stress.

    Stress has long been proven to cause a host of issues in the physical body as well as the mind. It can increase cortisol levels, which add to weight gain. It can prohibit sleep, which then throws off the appetite. It’s not good for the body to live under prolonged periods of stress. To manage stress, consider speaking with a mental health therapist or counselor. Also, there are numerous lifestyle changes you can make to reduce stress, like exercising daily or adopting a meditation practice. Both have been shown to drastically reduce stress and improve quality of life. 

The Takeaway on diabetes and leg swelling

If you are currently living with diabetes and have experienced the symptom of swollen legs, try some of these remedies to alleviate symptoms. Additionally, book an appointment online with a primary care provider who can help you better understand this blood disorder and create an easy-to-follow maintenance plan. It’s important to consult with your doctor and stick to a treatment and management plan. Use the online scheduling tool to book an appointment or sign up for newsletters that offer COVID-19 updates for patients. Health care, especially when it comes to chronic, life-threatening disease, shouldn’t be confusing and inaccessible.