If you have diabetes, also known as diabetes mellitus, you may experience swollen toes and feet as they are a common complication of the disease and can cause a lot of pain and discomfort.
Several factors including high blood sugar levels and nerve damage can lead to swollen feet and it is important to see your doctor to avoid further complications.
Below we will discuss what causes diabetic swelling and what are the best treatment options.
We will also talk about when you need to see a doctor about your swollen feet and other diabetic foot problems besides swelling.
How does diabetes cause swelling?
Diabetes is a chronic condition caused by excess blood sugar levels that can lead to numerous complications.
Your body normally uses the hormone insulin to convert blood sugar, also called glucose, into energy.
When you have diabetes, your body either stops making insulin or your cells become insulin resistant, both of which can elevate your blood sugar levels and cause health problems, one of which is swollen feet.
There are two main ways that diabetes can cause swollen feet.
The first is blood vessel damage through peripheral artery disease, also known as peripheral vascular disease. When the blood vessels are damaged, they have a reduced blood flow which leaves your extremities, like your feet, swollen from excess fluid which is called edema.
Poor blood flow can also leave you prone to diabetic ulcers and foot infections that can also cause swelling.
The second way diabetes can cause swollen feet is by damaging the nerves through diabetic neuropathy.
When the nerves are damaged, they do not send the proper signals to the brain about swelling and can even leave you with a loss of feeling in your extremities.
When your feet, ankles, or toes are numb, you will not be able to feel if you hurt yourself, whether through sprains, fractures, or wounds, which can lead to a lack of treatment and can exacerbate any problems causing the swelling.
What other diabetic risk factors and complications can also cause swollen feet?
Besides blood flow and nerve damage issues, there are several other diabetic risk factors and complications that can cause swollen feet.
Kidney damage from diabetes or kidney disease is a common complication that can also lead to swollen feet. When the kidneys are damaged, they do not remove excess fluid and salt from your body like normal which can then cause fluid retention and edema.
Another diabetic complication that can cause swollen feet is heart failure.
When the heart is not able to pump efficiently, it can cause fluid to build up in your extremities also.
Venous insufficiency, or when the valves in your veins do not work correctly, can also leave you with swollen feet because it can lead to edema and blood pooling in your extremities.
Another risk factor for swollen ankles and feet is being overweight or obese. Excess weight puts additional pressure on your joints and muscles which can lead to swelling.
Finally, some medications have a side effect of swelling and you can talk to your doctor about alternative prescription medications if this is the case.
What are the treatment options for swollen feet?
Elevating your feet
Elevating your feet above heart level for 5-10 minutes several times a day can help with circulation and reduce swelling.
Regular exercise can also help improve circulation and reduce swollen feet. However, it is important to talk to your doctor before starting any new exercise routine as some exercises may worsen swelling.
Regular exercise also helps to avoid obesity and manage your blood glucose levels too.
If you have a sedentary job, even simple physical activity like getting up and walking around for a few minutes an hour can also help although regular exercise is recommended.
Compression socks or stockings
Compression socks, also called compression stockings, and other compression garments can help to reduce swollen feet by applying gentle pressure to the area which helps to promote circulation and reduce fluid buildup.
Reducing salt intake
When you consume too much salt, your body retains water which can lead to swelling. It is best to avoid salty food and focus on more healthy foods although salt in moderation is fine.
Eating a healthy diet
Similar to getting regular exercise, eating a healthy diet can help you manage your blood glucose levels and avoid obesity.
A healthy diet if you have diabetes includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and avoiding processed foods and foods with lots of simple carbohydrates like sugar.
If you pair a healthy diet with regular exercise you can help maintain a healthy weight and prevent obesity along with many other conditions.
Although drinking plenty of water may seem counterintuitive when combatting fluid buildup and swelling in your feet, it is important to stay hydrated by drinking at least eight glasses of water a day.
Staying hydrated helps your kidneys function properly and remove excess fluid from your body.
Try a foot soak
A foot soak or foot bath, especially with Epsom salt, can help reduce swollen feet.
The magnesium sulfate in Epsom salts can help reduce inflammation and the warm water helps improve circulation.
Please note that if you have a diabetic foot ulcer you need to avoid soaking your feet including foot baths.
When do I need to see a doctor about my swollen feet?
If you are experiencing swollen feet, it is important to talk to your doctor, especially if the swelling is accompanied by pain, redness, or warmth in the affected area as these symptoms could be signs of an infection.
You should also see your doctor for medical treatment if the swelling does not improve with home treatment or if you have diabetes and are experiencing swollen feet.
Swollen feet can be a sign of diabetic peripheral neuropathy which is a serious complication of diabetes that can lead to amputation.
What are other diabetic foot problems besides swelling?
Swollen feet are not the only diabetic foot problems as you may also experience the following:
- Diabetic foot ulcers
- Athlete’s foot
- Ingrown toenails
- Plantar warts
- Dry skin
- Toenail fungal infections
If you have diabetic neuropathy and your feet feel numb you may not notice any new cuts or wounds which may become infected and lead to amputation.
To avoid any of these foot complications, please practice proper foot care by washing your feet with mild soap and using a moisturizing cream daily.
Also scan your feet for any cuts, blisters, or skin issues to help prevent any further problems and wear shoes that protect your feet.
As part of your diabetes treatment plan, you need to also schedule regular foot exams with your doctor or a specialist foot doctor known as a podiatrist to help prevent and manage any diabetes-related foot problems.
Diabetes can cause swollen feet due to fluid buildup and poor circulation.
There are numerous ways you can help alleviate these symptoms ranging from elevating your feet to wearing compression socks.
If you also experience pain, redness, or warmth along with swelling in the affected area you should see your doctor for medical care as it could be a sign of an infection.
Swollen feet are just one of the many diabetic foot problems so it is important to practice proper foot care by keeping your feet clean, using a moisturizing cream, and checking your feet for any cuts or blisters.
You also need to schedule regular foot exams with your doctor as part of your diabetic treatment plan to keep your feet healthy.
If you have any more questions about swollen feet or toes in relation to diabetes, please talk to your doctor, health care provider, or podiatrist.
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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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