If you are experiencing cramps in your legs or ankles it is important to know the possible causes.
Diabetes, also called diabetes mellitus, and its complications can be a cause of leg or ankle cramps and pain, but other conditions can lead to this type of pain too.
In this article, we will discuss the symptoms and treatment options for ankle and leg cramps related to diabetes and describe other possible causes.
We will also provide some tips on how to prevent diabetic nerve pain and ankle cramps in general as well.
What is diabetes?
Diabetes is a chronic condition that occurs when there is too much sugar called glucose in your blood.
Elevated blood sugar levels (hyperglycemia) happen because your body either does not produce enough or your cells do not respond properly to insulin, which is a hormone that regulates blood sugar levels by allowing your cells to use glucose for energy.
Over time, high blood glucose levels can damage nerves and cause problems with circulation among many other complications like vision loss, heart disease, and stroke.
What are the symptoms of diabetes?
The most common symptoms of diabetes are increased thirst, frequent urination, and extreme fatigue. However, other symptoms can include the following:
- Blurred vision
- Increased appetite
- Slow-healing cuts or sores
- Tingling or numbness in the hands or feet
- Sudden weight loss
- Irritability and mood swings
- Increased risk of infections
If you experience any of these symptoms, it is important to see your doctor as soon as possible for a diagnosis.
How does diabetes cause leg pain and cramps?
One of the most common complications of diabetes is nerve damage, which can cause shooting pains, tingling, or numbness in your legs and feet and this condition is called diabetic neuropathy or diabetic peripheral neuropathy.
Diabetic neuropathy is caused by high blood sugar levels damaging the small blood vessels that supply oxygen and nutrients to your nerves and over time, this damage can lead to pain, cramps, and other problems.
If left untreated, you may not sense the pain signals caused by a cut, sore, or ulcer on your legs or feet due to numbness. The wound may then become infected and lead to amputation.
What are the treatment options for leg pain and cramps?
There are several treatments available for leg pain and cramps associated with diabetic neuropathy including the following:
If you experience mild or moderate pain, you may be able to take over-the-counter painkillers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), aspirin, and ibuprofen (Advil) although they will not work for severe pain.
Currently, there are two different U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) prescription medicines available for diabetic neuropathy and they are Cymbalta (duloxetine) and Lyrica (pregabalin).
Antidepressants, antiseizure, and opioids may also be prescribed as they have been found to help with nerve pain management too although it needs to be noted that opioids can only be used short term as they can be habit forming.
Physical therapy and exercise
Physical therapy and exercise can help to improve blood flow and reduce pain.
A physical therapist may also teach you exercises to help strengthen the muscles in your legs which can lessen the pain.
Low impact exercises like riding a bike, swimming, or even frequent walks can also help manage your pain and also lower your blood glucose levels.
There are also topical treatments available that can be applied directly to your skin such as creams, lotions, or gels.
These treatments include over-the-counter options such as Bengay, Icy Hot, and Aspercreme or prescription options like capsaicin cream and lidocaine patches although it is best to ask your doctor before starting any new medicines.
Several dietary supplements are being studied for their possible benefits in treating diabetic nerve pain. These include:
- Vitamin B-12
- Alpha-lipoic acid (ALA)
- Vitamin D
Vitamin B-12 is found naturally in animal foods such as meat, poultry, and fish and is thought to help with nerve damage.
ALA is an antioxidant that is found naturally in spinach, broccoli, and potatoes and may help alleviate pain and prevent further nerve damage.
Acetyl-L-carnitine is produced in your body and some studies show that it may help with creating healthy nerve cells.
Vitamin D is naturally found in your body after exposure to sunlight and it may help decrease swelling and pain.
Dietary supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration so it is best to talk to your doctor before starting them.
More research also needs to be conducted to come to firm conclusions about the ability of these supplements to treat diabetic nerve pain.
When do I need to see a doctor about leg pain or cramps?
If you are experiencing any leg pain or cramps, it is important to see your doctor as soon as possible for a diagnosis.
Even if you can function normally with the pain in your everyday life you need to see your doctor as diabetic neuropathy can get worse.
You may also have peripheral artery disease (PAD), also called peripheral vascular disease, which can cause poor blood flow and circulation and increase your risk of heart attack and stroke.
If the pain is severe, if you have an open wound or ulcer, or if you have any other concerns, it is best to seek medical treatment right away.
Are there ways to prevent diabetic nerve pain and cramps in the legs?
Unfortunately, there is no guaranteed preventative treatment for leg pain, cramps, and muscle pain but you can help lower your risk by managing your diabetes and keeping your blood sugar levels in their target range.
The best way to manage your diabetes includes eating a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight, getting regular exercise, taking your medications as prescribed, and monitoring your blood sugar levels.
You can also quit smoking if you do smoke as this can help improve blood flow and prevent further nerve damage.
Taking proper care of your feet and legs is also necessary which includes washing them daily with mild soap, routinely checking them for sores or skin irritations, and using a daily moisturizing lotion.
Wearing comfortable shoes that protect your feet can also help and you need to avoid going barefoot even at home to prevent injuries.
What else besides diabetes could be causing leg cramps?
Several other health conditions can cause damage to nerves or cramps in your legs such as:
- Peripheral artery disease
- Nerve damage not caused by diabetes
- Some medications like diuretics
- Spinal stenosis which is a narrowing of the part of your spinal cord that has nerves
- Other metabolic conditions besides diabetes such as chronic kidney disease, an overactive or underactive thyroid, and anemia
These are just some of the other medical conditions that can cause leg and ankle cramps and pain but there are others.
It is important to see your doctor to get a proper diagnosis as some of these conditions can be serious and treatments for leg pain or cramps will vary depending on the underlying cause.
Leg pain and cramps can be caused by diabetes or other medical conditions which makes it extremely important to see your doctor as soon as possible for a diagnosis if you are experiencing pain.
There is no cure for diabetic nerve pain and cramps but you can help lower your risk by managing your diabetes.
Taking proper care of your feet and legs is also necessary to help prevent any further damage.
If you have any more questions regarding diabetes-related leg cramps or pain, please talk to your doctor, podiatrist, or health care provider.
References and sources:
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Diabetic.org is devoted to producing expert and accurate articles and information for our readers by hiring experts, journalists, medical professionals, and our growing Diabetic.org community. We encourage you to read more about our content, editing, and fact checking methods here. This was fact checked by Jacqueline Hensler and medically reviewed by Dr. Angel Rivera.
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