Looking after yourself and your diabetes – introducing complications

Published 22 June, 2016

Diabetes can be difficult to get to grips with, whether you’re newly diagnosed or you’ve had diabetes for years. We know that managing your blood sugar is critical to staying healthy with diabetes. If your blood sugar is too high for long periods of time then this can lead to a number of complications.

Complications can be a daunting topic. But the good news is that they are largely avoidable by maintaining a healthy lifestyle, staying active and keeping a tight control on your blood sugars.

What areas of the body can complications affect?


High blood sugar for a prolonged period of time can cause damage to the tiny vessels in an area in the back of your eye called the retina. This is called retinopathy. The retina is the part of the eye that is responsible for “seeing”, and damaging this can lead to permanent worsening of vision and even going blind altogether.

Heart and vessels

Having diabetes increases the risk of developing heart and vessel disease which can lead to heart attacks, strokes and peripheral vascular disease. This occurs when fatty material, or ‘plaques’ made up of cholesterol, build up on the inside of your blood vessels and cause them to become narrower. Not only can this increase your blood pressure, but plaques can also break off and block the vessels. This can stop oxygen being delivered to places like your heart and brain, which can cause a heart attack or a stroke.

The blood vessels in your hands and feet may also become blocked, which can lead to something called peripheral vascular disease. Symptoms of this include cramping pain most commonly in the legs when carrying out physical activity.


Kidneys are responsible for cleaning all of the blood in your body. If the blood is too sugary for a prolonged period, it can damage blood vessels in the kidneys. They can become thickened or irregular which prevents them from filtering waste products out of the blood into the urine properly. This is called ‘nephropathy’. It’s normal to not experience any symptoms in the early stages of kidney disease. However, as the disease becomes more serious you may experience swelling of the hands and feet, itching, difficulty concentrating, nausea and weakness.


Prolonged high blood glucose levels can also cause ‘neuropathy’, which is damage to the nerves. The main risk of this for someone with diabetes is loss of feeling in the feet. Symptoms of nerve and vessel damage include pain, numbness, tingling, cramps and loss of balance and coordination. Poor blood supply to the feet can also slow the process of wound healing, increasing the chance of developing ulcers and sores which can become infected.

Other parts of your body are also at risk of nerve damage, but this is less common. For example, neuropathy can lead to numbness or tingling in your fingers and hands, disorders involving the gut and digestion, and it may also cause erectile dysfunction.

Mental state

Some people find that living with a long-term disease such as diabetes can be overwhelming and can even make them feel depressed. There are many services that are available to help people who feel this way. Speak to your GP to find out more, or click here for psychological services offered in your area, alternatively visit the NHS choices website.