Studies say 20% to 60% of people with diabetes have chronic pain. Neuropathy in the feet, back pain, joint pain, and headaches can make life pretty miserable. There are drugs for pain management, but in recent years good non-drug approaches have also been studied.
• Diet makes a difference. California State University, East Bay, and George Washington University researchers found that a vegan diet (no animal products) reduced neuropathy pain in the feet of people with Type 2 diabetes. The vegan diet improved blood circulation and nerve function. Pain was also reduced.
You eat no meat or dairy on this diet, so it’s low in fat. People on the vegan diet ate a lot of oats, greens, and legumes and received vitamin B-12 supplements. The control group also got B-12, but no diet change.
This is a big deal, because neuropathy is experienced by up to 70% of people with diabetes, according to the National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse. Scientists think this is because high blood sugar levels cause inflammation of nerves. Our blogger Martha Zimmer wrote here about foods that increase inflammation and others that reduce it.
Martha wrote, “Things such as red meat, dairy products, processed meat, refined grains like white flour, and artificial food additives like MSG and aspartame [promote] inflammation.” She also names sugars and trans fats as being inflammatory.
Her list of foods shown in studies to reduce inflammation includes olive oil, ginger, salmon, turmeric, berries, whole grains, yogurt, spinach, and cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli. She gives reasons why each food might be helpful. Eating them decreased her pain, she says.
• Touch feels good. If your body is always a source of pain, never of pleasure, you probably won’t do much to take care of it. Touch therapies like massage can make you remember that there is more to life than your pain. A Brazilian study of the Therapeutic Touch technique found that elderly patients had less pain and depression and better sleep after Therapeutic Touch treatments.
A study of hospital patients in Arizona found that 30 minutes of massage dramatically reduced pain (from an average 5.18 on a scale of 10 to 2.33) and improved sleep.
All kinds of touch can lower pain levels. This article reports on studies showing hand holding, hugs, or stroking a pet reduced pain and even speeded post-surgical recovery. When we’re hurting, we often withdraw from touch, but that’s the time we need it most.
• Nerve stimulation devices block pain. Let’s go medium-tech for a minute. All pain signals travel along nerves to the spinal cord and brain. Modifying or blocking the signals can reduce pain or stop it. “Neurostimulator” devices to block pain are improving all the time.
A new one called Quell came out last year. Quell’s big advantage is that you can wear it day and/or night. It’s FDA approved, but should not be used if you have a heart pacemaker, implanted defibrillator, or other implanted metallic or electronic device.
Other neurostimulators have been around for a long time. A new study from the Netherlands gave strong evidence that they work. The study followed 17 subjects over two years, and the majority got highly significant pain relief.
• Exercise changes your pain experience. Moving your body reduces the effect of neuropathic pain, while staying put tends to make it worse.
Researchers at the University of Kansas enrolled subjects who were sedentary (inactive) and had diabetic neuropathy pain. They were put in a 16-week aerobic exercise program. The report didn’t say what kind of exercise they did, but it could have been as simple as walking or swimming.
The researchers found that, although pain intensity had not changed by the end of the program, participants felt better. Their pain might still be a, say, 6 on a scale of 10, but they could walk, work, sleep, play, have sex, and enjoy life. And quality of life is what’s important. Pain is not all physical. It’s an interaction of physical, mental, emotional, and social factors. Subjects who exercised felt better about themselves and about their lives.
Medicines help too
Many drug approaches can help diabetes pain: narcotics, anti-inflammatories, and anti-depressants can all help, and there are more types listed here. Creams and oils can also help. There is good evidence for capsaicin (red pepper extract) cream being effective for pain. Many other oils and creams have been found effective. In medical marijuana states, cannabis oil or “hemp oil” helps a lot of pain sufferers.
Learn much more about chronic pain in this article. Most important of all is improved glucose control, so anything you can do about that is likely to help.
Bottom line: Pain is a major diabetes complication, but it can be treated and managed. Don’t give up on it; you can get better.
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