Infections, circulation problems and nerve damage are common problems among people with diabetes, meaning it’s especially important to prioritize caring for your feet if you are living with this condition.
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle and managing your diabetes can help you take care of your feet. In this guide, we are going to offer a detailed overview of how to take care of your feet to prevent any complications.
What are the effects of diabetes on feet?
Two serious conditions of the feet that can develop in people with diabetes are:
- Peripheral vascular disease
- Diabetic neuropathy
Here is a brief overview of these conditions.
If you fail to regulate the levels of your blood sugar, uncontrolled diabetes can cause nerve damage. If you have damaged nerves in your feet and legs, you may not be able to feel cold or heat in those areas, or you may experience pain or numbness. This lack of feeling, or diabetic peripheral neuropathy, can be serious because you may not feel if you’ve cut or injured your feet/legs.
Peripheral vascular disease
We all know that diabetes can affect the flow of blood, which makes it take longer for an injury or a sore to heal. Peripheral vascular disease affects blood flow in the legs and arms. Any injury or infection that does not heal because of poor blood flow can increase your chances of developing gangrene or ulcers.
Other foot problems in people with diabetes
In addition to diabetic neuropathy and peripheral vascular disease, there are a number of other foot problems that people with diabetes may experience. Overlooking any of these complications may lead to serious consequences, including amputation.
Let’s find out more about foot complications that can result due to diabetes.
Such infections are common among people who have trouble maintaining optimal blood sugar levels. Nails are often vulnerable to fungal infections, which could lead to discoloring or thickening. Wearing the wrong type of shoes can also create a moist, dark and warm environment for a fungal infection to thrive.
Since fungal nail infections can be challenging to treat, people with diabetes should try to prevent them by taking good care of their nails. In some cases, their doctor may recommend removing the damaged nail to protect other parts of the feet.
A type of fungus that causes redness, itching and cracking of the feet is called Athlete’s foot. In this condition, germs enter through the skin’s cracks and lead to an infection. To treat this condition, your doctor will likely prescribe medication to kill the fungus. This medication can be in the form of creams or pills.
Calluses are buildups of hard skin, which are typically on the underside of the feet. One reason calluses form on the feet is because of an uneven distribution of weight. A skin condition or ill-fitting shoes can also lead to their formation. Don’t try to remove calluses at home, and let a doctor examine them to determine the best treatment. You can use a pumice stone for removing the built-up tissue gently, but don’t remove or cut it using a sharp object.
A buildup of hard skin near a toe, between your toes, or a bony area is a corn. In many cases, corns arise due to friction between your toes or pressure from shoes that rub against your toes. Taking care of corns is important, but never remove or cut the corn using a sharp object. The best way to take care of corns is to gently remove them using a pumice stone after you take a shower or a bath.
Blisters result whenever your shoes rub the same spot on your foot over and over. Blisters are common among people who don’t wear comfortable shoes or who wear shoes without socks. Don’t “pop” your blisters in an attempt to cure them, but instead use an antibacterial cream and bandages for preventing infection and protecting the skin.
Whenever your big toe bends toward your second toe, you risk developing bunions. Generally, in people with this condition, the spot where the big toe joins the foot becomes callused and red, and it may become hard and stick out. In many cases, bunions form on both feet. Although wearing high heels is the most common reason behind their formation, bunions may also run in the family.
Avoid wearing heels or shoes that put pressure on your big toe and push it toward your second toe. Wear shoes with foam or felt padding to prevent any irritation to the bunion. People with diabetes should opt for flats or shoes that do not put any pressure on the big toe. In some cases, the doctor may use a device for separating the big and second toes. In rare cases, the doctor may recommend surgery for realigning the toes if the bunion causes deformity or severe pain.
Any deep sore or break in the skin is referred to as a diabetic ulcer. There are many reasons why foot ulcers can happen, but one main cause is minor scrapes that heal very slowly. Wearing uncomfortable shoes can also lead to their formation.
As soon as you notice any sores or ulcers, contact your doctor. Diabetic ulcers are common, and the doctor will prescribe you the best treatment approach.
Any cracks in your skin can allow germs to enter. The best way to take care of dry feet is to use lotions (except between the toes) and moisturizing soaps to keep your skin soft and moist.
Ingrown toenails occur when the edges of your nail grow into the skin. Apart from causing pressure, ingrown toenails can cause severe pain along the edges of the affected nail. You may also experience swelling, redness, infection or drainage.
A common reason why people with diabetes develop ingrown toenails is the pressure that builds up from wearing the wrong shoes. There are a few other causes as well, such as repeated trauma to the feet due to activities like walking, running and aerobics.
Trim your toenails properly to prevent ingrown toenails. In case of a persistent problem or a nail infection, contact your doctor. In rare cases, your doctor may recommend surgery for removing a part of the affected toenail.
A hammertoe refers to a toe bent due to a weakened muscle. The weakening of the muscles makes the tendons in the toe shorter, causing the toe to curl under the foot. Although hammertoes usually run in families, you can be at risk of developing hammertoes if you wear shoes that are too small. Some of the problems that can arise due to hammertoes include sores, calluses and blisters. The best way to treat them is to straighten your toes through corrective shoes and splints, as recommended by your doctor.
These formations appear like calluses and are usually present on the heel or ball of the foot. Plantar warts can grow in clusters or individually due to a virus that gradually infects the sole on the feet and the outer layer of the skin. Get in touch with your doctor to determine the best way to address plantar warts.
Taking care of your feet when you have diabetes
Here are some general tips to follow.
- Monitor your blood sugar every day
- Schedule regular medical exams or foot checks
- Check your cholesterol and blood pressure levels regularly
- Exercise regularly
- Eat a balanced diet rich in vegetable and fruits
Signs of diabetic foot problems
If you experience any of these problems, contact your doctor immediately:
- Changes in skin temperature or skin colors
- Swelling in the ankle or foot
- Pain or swelling in the legs
- Open sores on the feet
- Infected toenails or ingrown toenails
- Calluses or corns
- Unusual foot odor
How to keep your feet healthy
In this section, we are going to offer tips that will help people with diabetes maintain healthy feet.
- Inspect your feet every day for swelling, redness, cuts, corns, calluses, blisters or any other damage. If you notice any unusual corns or outgrowths on your skin or nails, inform your doctor.
- Check the bottom of your feet using a mirror or ask a family member to check for any problems.
- Don’t forget to wash your feet with warm water every day. Avoid using very hot water because it can dry out your feet. Once you dry them, apply a generous amount of lotion to the bottom and top of your feet (but not between your toes because these areas are vulnerable to infection).
- Always wear slippers, socks or shoes to avoid injury.
- Avoid wearing ill-fitted shoes because too small a size can lead to swelling or pain.
- Smooth any sharp edges using a nail file and trim your toenails. If you can’t reach your feet comfortably, you can also ask your podiatrist (foot doctor) to trim your nails.
- Avoid removing calluses or corns yourself, especially with over-the-counter products, because they could burn your skin.
- Schedule a foot check-up at every healthcare visit. In addition to that, visit your foot doctor every six months or once a year (as directed). In addition to checking your feet visually, your doctor will also check the blood flow in your feet.
- When you are sitting, put your feet up. Don’t forget to wiggle your toes several times a day.
- Opt for foot-friendly activities like biking, walking or swimming. Don’t forget to check with your doctor before taking up any new physical activity.
When should you speak with a doctor?
If you notice any of these complications, make sure you contact your doctor.
- Cramping or pain in your buttocks, legs, calves or thighs during exercise
- Pain, burning or tingling in your feet
- Any changes in the shape of your feet
- Loss of hair on your lower legs, feet or toes
- Cracked or dry skin on your feet
- Yellow or thickened toes
- Athlete’s foot or fungal infections
- An ulcer, sore, blister, ingrown tails or infected corns
Additional steps to care for your feet
Most people can prevent serious foot complications with regular care. In addition to the tips we gave above, here are some more ways to take care of your feet if you have diabetes:
Take care of your toenails
People with diabetes must take good care of their toenails, but nerve problems, difficulty seeing or circulation changes in the feet or legs can make it difficult to maintain healthy toenails. If you can conduct basic toenail maintenance yourself, doing so can help prevent you from getting a foot sore or ulcer. You can also ask your podiatrist to suggest the best way to perform routine toenail care and/or to clip your toenails.
Here are a few tips to maintain good toenail care:
- First, trim your toenails when your nails are soft; for instance, after a bath or when you wash your feet.
- Cut your toenails in a curved fashion to prevent ingrown toenails.
- Remember not to cut your toenails too short.
- Don’t cut into the corners.
Choose comfortable footwear
People with diabetes are vulnerable to nerve damage or neuropathy, which leads to foot sensitivity. In simple words, your feet become more sensitive and susceptible to injury when you have diabetes. That’s one reason why doctors recommend that patients choose comfortable shoes and never buy a smaller size thinking the shoes will stretch.
Here are some tips to follow when choosing the right footwear:
- Don’t wear shoes made out of plastic. Instead, choose shoes made of suede, canvas or leather.
- Don’t buy open-toe or pointed-toe shoes.
- Avoid wearing flip-flops or high heels.
- Choose shoes that you can adjust with Velcro, buckles or laces.
- Check the inside of your shoes every day for bumps or tears that may cause irritation or pressure.
If your doctor suggests, wear special or customized shoes. There are a few different types of specialized footwear available.
Healing shoes help you recover from foot surgery or foot sores. These shoes are available in closed-toe versions and open sandals. While people with diabetes should not wear open-toed shoes, your doctor may suggest this design while you are healing from an injury or a sore.
These shoes are half- or one-quarter-inch deeper than regular shoes. Thanks to this extra room, the shoes can accommodate hammertoes, calluses or special inserts.
If the shape of your feet is changing or you need special shoes for relieving foot pain or nerve damage, you can get customized shoes created from a mold of your foot. Such shoes can help relieve several foot problems, such as corns, bunions or calluses.
Besides wearing special or customized shoes, you can also make your regular shoes more comfortable by adding a shock-absorbent sole or orthotics (special inserts prescribed by your doctor).
Wear special socks
Shoes are not the only accessories that can help you prevent foot injuries or complications. There are many types of specialized socks available on the market that can help you protect your feet. Diabetic socks keep your feet dry and improve blood circulation. Not every patient with diabetes needs diabetic socks, but if your job or lifestyle requires you to sit for long hours, you can reduce the risk of blood clots or swelling by wearing special socks designed for diabetes patients.
Here are some of the most important features to look for in diabetic socks.
Generally, diabetic socks do not feature seams along the toe, which helps reduce the risk of blisters and rubbing that can lead to foot ulcers.
Choose acrylic fibers instead of moisture-wicking materials to keep your feet dry. The drier your foot, the more protection you will have against blisters and wounds. You can also choose soft yarns or fine-textured fabrics such as wool and bamboo. These materials possess natural antimicrobial properties. Additionally, some socks are made with silver or copper-infused yarns with anti-fungal properties that also guarantee odor protection.
Special socks with this feature do not squeeze the calves like conventional socks often do, in a way that can restrict the blood flow.
Extra padding in the soles of socks can prevent an injury during exercise or while playing a sport such as soccer or tennis.
Thanks to technology, there are specialized socks available that feature embedded sensors for monitoring foot temperature. For instance, if an ulcer is forming, the socks will alert the wearer through an app. Typically, you need to change the battery of these socks after six months of use.
Socks for people with diabetes are available in multiple lengths. You can choose anything from crew-length socks to no-show styles to over-the-knee designs. Select the length that suits your needs.
It’s true that people with diabetes need to take extremely good care of their feet. Now that you know about potential foot risks and the best ways to address them, follow this guide to keep your feet in tip-top shape. And don’t forget to stay in touch with your doctor to help prevent and treat foot issues.