If you are experiencing sharp, stabbing pain in your legs, toes, or feet, it could be a sign of a nerve condition caused by your diabetes.
Diabetes is a condition that affects the way your body uses blood sugar which is called glucose.
When left untreated, diabetes can cause many health problems such as nerve damage including the type of nerve damage called diabetic neuropathy.
You may also see a wide range of symptoms, including sharp stabbing pains in your toes, feet, or legs. In this article, we will discuss the causes and symptoms of diabetic neuropathy and how it is treated.
What is diabetes?
Diabetes, also known as diabetes mellitus, is a chronic condition that occurs when you have elevated blood sugar levels.
Blood sugar, or glucose, is the main source of energy for the cells in your body.
Your pancreas produces the hormone insulin, which helps your cells take in glucose to convert it into energy.
If you have diabetes, either your pancreas does not produce enough insulin, which is known as type 1 diabetes, or the cells in your body have become insulin resistant, which is known as type 2 diabetes.
There are other types of diabetes; however, these two types are the most common.
When diabetes is left untreated, it can lead to numerous different complications including nerve damage, kidney failure, and severe pain among others.
What are the symptoms of diabetes?
Besides elevated blood glucose levels, the other most common symptoms of diabetes can include:
- Blurred vision
- Frequent urination
- Increased thirst
- Increased appetite
- Unexplained weight loss even when eating more
- Slow healing wounds or sores
- Irritability and mood swings
- Increased risk of infections
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms please see your doctor or health care provider for a diagnosis.
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How does diabetes cause stabbing pain in my feet, toes, or legs?
One of the complications that can develop from diabetes is nerve damage.
The specific type of nerve damage caused by diabetes in your feet or legs is called diabetic neuropathy or diabetic peripheral neuropathy as it damages your peripheral nerves and can cause a sharp or stabbing pain in your extremities.
Diabetic neuropathy most commonly affects the nerves in your feet and legs, but it can also affect the nerves in your hands and arms.
Although the cause of peripheral neuropathy is unknown, it is thought to be caused by uncontrolled blood sugar levels over a long period of time which also weakens your blood vessels making it more difficult for your extremities to receive oxygen and nutrients due to poor blood flow.
There are three other types of nerve damage besides peripheral neuropathy caused by diabetes including autonomic neuropathy, proximal neuropathy (diabetic polyradiculopathy), and mononeuropathy (focal neuropathy) although our article will focus on peripheral neuropathy as it is the most common form of stabbing pains in your feet, legs, and toes.
What are the other symptoms of diabetic neuropathy?
Stabbing or shooting pains are not the only symptoms caused by peripheral neuropathy, the other most common symptoms include:
- Numbness or reduced sensation
- A tingling sensation
- A burning sensation
- Sharp pain or shooting pain (neuropathic pain) that includes leg and foot pain
- Extreme sensitivity in affected areas
- Muscle weakness
- Foot deformities such as hammertoes and Charcot foot due to breaking the bones in your feet
- Increased risk of infection
- Diabetic foot ulcers
It is also possible to have no symptoms at all which makes it very important to manage your diabetes and schedule regular foot exams with your doctor or podiatrist (foot doctor).
Are there any risk factors for diabetic neuropathy?
There are several risk factors for diabetic neuropathy besides poor diabetes management of your blood glucose levels as you are also more likely to get it with other risk factors too.
The other most common risk factors for diabetic peripheral neuropathy include:
- Obesity as having a body mass index (BMI) over 25 makes you more at risk for neuropathy
- Having diabetes for a long time
- Kidney disease
If you have any of these risk factors in addition to diabetes it is even more important to see your doctor for regular appointments and to monitor your blood sugar levels.
What are the treatments for diabetic neuropathy?
Although there is no cure for diabetic neuropathy, there are different treatments available depending on the severity of your symptoms including:
- Monitoring your blood glucose levels
- Managing your diabetes through lifestyle changes such as eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, and taking any medications as prescribed by your doctor
- Taking over-the-counter pain medications such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil) for mild to moderate pain
- Antiseizure medications
- Opioids for pain although these can only be used short term due to their addictive qualities
- Topical treatments like lidocaine patches or capsaicin cream
- Dietary supplements such as alpha-lipoic acid or acetyl-L-carnitine
- Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) which involves electrodes on your skin for nerve stimulation via electric shock
- Physical therapy or occupational therapy to help with pain and improve your mobility
The most important treatment plan is monitoring your blood sugar levels and subsequently managing your diabetes based on your levels.
Antidepressants and antiseizure medications have been shown to have beneficial effects on nerve damage and include the only two United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved medications to treat it.
Please note that dietary supplements are not regulated by the FDA and you need to talk to your doctor before starting any new treatment as there are common side effects and drug interactions that your doctor can consider before you start them.
Is diabetic neuropathy preventable?
Yes, diabetic neuropathy can be preventable sometimes but there are also steps you can take to stop its progression.
With good management and blood sugar control by keeping it within your target range through regular exercise, a healthy diet, and taking any medications as prescribed, you will be able to help prevent diabetic neuropathy and slow its progression.
It is also important to see your doctor for regular checkups and to monitor your feet for any changes by conducting a physical exam daily for any cuts, sores, or irritations on your feet.
Due to the numbness caused by diabetic neuropathy you may not be able to feel any cuts or sores which leaves them at risk for bacterial infection or fungal infections and possibly amputation.
You need to also keep your feet healthy by washing them with mild soap daily, drying them thoroughly after washing them, and using a moisturizing cream to prevent any dry skin or cracks in your skin that could lead to infection.
You also want to wear comfortable shoes that are also closed-toed shoes to help protect yourself from foot injuries and avoid exposing them to extreme hot or cold temperatures.
Diabetic neuropathy is a serious complication of diabetes that can cause sharp, stabbing, diabetic nerve pain in your feet, toes, or legs among several other common symptoms.
Although there is no cure for diabetic neuropathy, there are treatments available to help manage your symptoms.
The most important treatment is monitoring your blood sugar levels and managing your diabetes based on those levels.
You can also help prevent diabetic neuropathy or slow its progression by following the tips we listed above.
If you have any more questions regarding diabetic neuropathy or how to treat it, please talk to your doctor, podiatrist, or health care provider.
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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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