Problems Related to Diabetes Complications

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Problems Related to Diabetes Complications

Topic Overview

The biggest challenge for many people with diabetes is to come to terms not just with the diagnosis of diabetes but with the fact that their diabetes places them at risk for a number of serious complications.

There are four main categories of complications from diabetes, affecting:

  • Small blood vessels (microvascular), causing damage to the eyes and kidneys.
  • Large blood vessels (macrovascular), which damages the heart and large blood vessels.
  • Nerves (neuropathy), which damages the nerves in your body. Nerve damage can affect both the functioning of internal organs, such as the stomach (gastroparesis), and your ability to feel pain when injured.
  • Immune system functioning, which affects your ability to fight infections and heal properly.

The experts do not completely understand what causes some people to develop complications from diabetes while others do not. For unknown reasons, some people have tissue and unidentified factors that are more or less resistant to damage. But having other risk factors for a specific complication increases the likelihood that you may develop that complication. For example, people with diabetes who smoke are at higher risk for heart disease than people with diabetes who do not smoke.

In some cases, you may be able to prevent complications. In other cases, that may not be possible, but good management of your diabetes can delay the onset of these problems and minimize their intensity when they do occur.

This table presents the potential problems related to diabetes complications and the symptoms that indicate those problems.

Potential problems related to diabetes complications

Diabetes complication

Potential problem

Symptoms of potential problem

Heart disease (coronary artery disease)

Heart attacks

  • Chest pain
  • Decreased tolerance for physical activity
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Swelling of the legs and ankles
  • Palpitations (feeling like the heart is racing or pounding)
Blood flow cut off to brain (cerebrovascular disease)


  • Impaired speech
  • Inability to see
  • Inability to walk
  • Paralysis on one side of the body
  • Numbness or tingling in limbs

Problem with blood circulation (peripheral arterial disease)

Reduced blood flow to the limb
  • Pain in the calves when walking
  • Coolness of the lower extremities
  • Loss of hair on the legs
  • Development of leg ulcers that do not heal promptly

Impaired immune system functioning

Developing infections that linger and wounds that do not heal quickly

  • Frequent infections, sometimes with unusual types of bacteria and fungus
  • Symptoms associated with a variety of infectious diseases

Impaired processing of cholesterol

Contributes to problems with coronary artery disease and strokes
  • Buildup of plaque in blood vessels, which contributes to increased frequency of heart disease, strokes, and circulation problems

Eyes (diabetic retinopathy)

Damage to the retina

  • Impaired vision
  • Blindness, in severe cases

Kidneys (diabetic nephropathy)

  • Impaired functioning of the kidneys
  • Kidney failure, in severe cases
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle cramping
  • Inability to think clearly
  • Swelling from retention of body fluids

Nerves (peripheral neuropathy)

Decreased sensation, especially common in the feet and hands

  • Numbness, tingling, and/or weakness in the feet and hands, which is usually worse at night.

Autonomic nervous system (autonomic neuropathy)

  • Weakness
  • Abnormal functioning of some organ systems:
    • Blood pressure and heart rate
    • Gastrointestinal tract
    • Male sexual performance
  • Swings in heart rate and blood pressure
  • Nausea and vomiting from failure of the stomach to contract and move food along the digestive tract (gastroparesis)
  • Impotence in men and retrograde ejaculation
  • Dizziness and drop in blood pressure when going from sitting to standing or when getting out of bed in the morning (orthostatic hypotension)

Related Information


By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Caroline S. Rhoads, MD - Internal Medicine
Primary Medical Reviewer Anne C. Poinier, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer David C.W. Lau, MD, PhD, FRCPC - Endocrinology
Last Revised February 24, 2010

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