Healing Numb Feet

Diabetes is hard on feet. Because the feet are farthest from the heart, any problems with blood flow can leave feet underfed. Results can include numbness, loss of foot strength, and worse. Fortunately, there are some good ways to heal and protect your feet.

As Birgitta I. Rice, MS, RPh, CHES, wrote here, much of the pain and numbness people with diabetes experience comes from nerve damage. The nerves are injured both by poor circulation and by high glucose levels.


We really need healthy nerves. (As a person with a nerve disease, I know about this.) According to Rice,

Loss of nerve fibers can result in muscle weakness, numbness, loss of reflexes, foot deformities, change in gait, and impaired balance and coordination. Loss of sensitivity to pain or temperature can also occur, leading in turn to blisters and sores from foot injuries that go unfelt.

Numbness is dangerous. Sometimes, people can have a pebble in their shoe and not notice it. Others may get in a hot bath and not realize their feet are being scalded. These kinds of seemingly minor things can lead to infections, which don’t heal because of having poor circulation. This is the major pathway to losing a leg to amputation. People with diabetes are eight times more likely than other people to have a lower leg amputated.

If you just woke up one day with numb feet, you would notice a big difference and ask about ways to treat it. It doesn’t work that way, though. Numbness comes on slowly over years, so you don’t notice day-to-day changes. Also, severe pain often comes before numbness, so that the numbness is perceived as a relief rather than a problem at first.

The relief of numbness comes with major costs, though. Numbness may make muscles weaker and balance less steady. So people are more likely to fall, and their feet can become deformed by walking wrong, since they can’t feel where the pressure is. So how can we protect our foot nerves?

There are many drugs for nerve pain, but not much for numbness. Lowering blood glucose and blood pressure will improve circulation, however, and drugs are one way to do that.

• Nondrug therapies for feet include creams and oils for the skin, such as L-arginine cream. Aromatherapy with scents such as geranium and lavendar are recommended by herbalists to improve circulation.

• Relaxation and biofeedback. There is a trademarked technique called WarmFeet that many diabetes educators swear by. Regular practice with WarmFeet has been shown to increase circulation, lower blood pressure, and improve coping skills.

The technique starts with relaxation. Then you visualize (imagine) feet warming and healing.

WarmFeet also includes biofeedback. A temperature sensor tells you if your feet are warming or cooling. You can notice what patterns of thoughts and breathing cause the feet to warm up, and try to stay in that mental state.

In a study at the University of Wisconsin, 18 people with chronic, nonhealing ulcers had total healing of the wounds and improved sensation in their feet after using WarmFeet regularly for 12–13 weeks.

You can read more about WarmFeet here. It costs about $23.

Anodyne therapy is application of infrared light that supposedly improves circulation and even grows new blood vessels. Some studies show benefits and others don’t.

It was interesting to read this article from Diabetes Care that showed anodyne therapy to be no better than placebo (sham) therapy. The sham therapy involved putting the same pads on the legs and feet as in the anodyne therapy, but the infrared lights were turned off. Instead, there were heaters that kept the leg at the same temperature the light would have, so subjects wouldn’t know the difference.

The sham therapy group did as well as the anodyne group, but maybe this shows that they both work. Both treatments are pleasant, warming, and relaxing, so maybe they worked like the warm feet treatment — through relaxation. Anodyne treatments are either done in a podiatrist’s office or at home. A home set costs $950 new or $550 “reconditioned.” Insurance does not cover it.

• Exercise is effective treatment for neuropathy, but numbness and pain can make exercise hard to do. WebMd suggests low-impact practices like cycling, swimming, or sitting aerobics. They say don’t make it too hard — it’s not about feeling the burn, it’s about having an active life. Doing fun things, social things like dancing or mall walking, practical things like yard work or gardening — just getting used to moving more — is all the exercise you need.

• Massage — either partner or self-massage. Gentle touch helps circulation and nerve function and reduces stress.

• Foot care. Daily foot inspection and care is crucial to preventing sores and infections. Read a good article on caring for your feet here.

The bottom line is to give your feet and your whole body some love and attention. Take the time for some relaxation or gentle exercise. Slow your mind down, move your body more, enjoy your life. Your feet will start to enjoy it more, too.

If you have found any ways to improve foot pain or numbness, or things that are supposed to work but don’t, please let us know with a comment.

  • JohnC

    Great article about nerve damage (Peripheral Neuropathy)and circulation problems in the feet.

    Though not widely discussed, the best way to avoid this nasty business is to keep your blood sugar under great control. I am fortunate to be one of those who has managed to reverse most of it by returning my glucose levels to almost normal.
    Takes a long time (years), but it is possible… it has been well documented but not readily recognized by the health care industry.

    Wil Dubois’ article on testing (in this weeks e-news)is a great start.

    • Beth

      Can you please give me some info on how you reversed this and lowered your blood sugar levels.
      Thank you
      Thank you

  • henry stasiewski

    I am currently in a physical theapy treatment usina VAS unit. It seems to be improving my feet sensitivity. the doctor says a person needs aout 24 pt treatments that last for 45 min. I am taking this treatment at a local hospital and its promising because I felt a sensitivity improvemtn of aout 20 % in my feet and i now am using pot holders for hot pots microwave dishes that i previously picked up with my bere hands So I am in the second set of treatments but I dont seem to be responding as well as it did in the first set. well with time if there is more improvement .

  • Mirella La Coronela Barboza

    Wrap aluminum around your pain. And it’s a miracle. Pain free do it for 10hrs a day for 12days.I did it I have diabetic. And pains on my feet and numbness. All went away,hope it works for everyone that’s hurt cause I really didn’t know what to do anymore this works,have a wonderful Day☺

  • Mirella La Coronela Barboza

    Aluminum foil

  • sharmaine McEachern

    I have numbness in my feet.

    • Diane Gl

      How do you wrap the aluminum foil around your feet for numb toes? Wrap each toe? How does it stay on. With scotch tape?

  • Please Dude Eat Muffins Drink

    I had a broken ankle, I recovered, and its still a little numb on the bottom and big/small foe.

  • Donna K Brent Bennett

    started new job, on concrete floors 8 hours a day. My feet are bruised and the pain is nearly crippling. I am some overweight and have diabetes. But I have worked all my life (I’m (58) and never had this kind of pain. Is it the diabetes or the concrete floors?

    • Hi Donna, Can’t tell, but I’m sure the floors have a lot to do with it. Can you see a podiatrist and ask about some orthotic shoes or pads? Diabetes could have something to do with it, too. How is your glucose control these days?

    • Teresa M

      I had the same issues. I bought a really thick sole shoe to overcome this issue. it worked wonders. http://www.it.skechers.com/it/style/11717/synergy-trend-setter/bbk

  • Diabetes is not hard on the feet because they are furthest away from the heart. Diabetes affects the micro and macro circulation (small and large blood vessels respectively). It also affects your nerves going into your feet and hands. Sometimes you can have a feeling of poor sensation or a feeling of something odd- like crawling, burning, cold or warm. Usually they are just feelings and you dont actually have cold or warm feet. Most footcare professionals/ Dr will check your feet to see if you have neuropathy and then they can offer advice if you do have it. Orthotics wont cure neuropathy. Neuropathy and lack of sensation are the main reasons why diabetics have issues with their feet. If you can not feel a scratch then it usually gets left open all day.