Almost everyone knows someone who has diabetes. An estimated 23.6 million people in the United States—7.8 percent of the population—have diabetes. Of those, 17.9 million have been diagnosed, and 5.7 million have not yet been diagnosed.

Diabetes is a disorder of metabolism—the way the body uses digested food for growth and energy. Most of the food people eat is broken down into glucose, the form of sugar in the blood. Glucose is the main source of fuel for the body.

After digestion, glucose passes into the bloodstream where it is used by cells for growth and energy. For glucose to get into cells, insulin must be present. Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas, a large gland behind the stomach.

When people eat, the pancreas automatically produces the right amount of insulin to move glucose from the blood into the cells. In people with diabetes, however, the pancreas either produces little or no insulin, or the cells do not respond appropriately to the insulin that is produced. Glucose builds up in the blood, overflows into the urine, and passes out of the body in the urine. Thus, the body loses its main source of fuel even though the blood contains large amounts of glucose.

While the cause of diabetes is unknown, factors such as obesity and lack of exercise play important roles. Diabetes can result in conditions such as: heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, kidney disease, nervous system disease (neuropathy), and problems with the skin, including ulcers and infections.

How a Physical Therapist Can Help

Managing your diabetes can lower your risk of resulting health issues. Diabetes management includes controlling your blood sugar (glucose), lowering your blood pressure and cholesterol, maintaining a healthy weight, and exercising. Physical therapists are experts in restoring and improving human motion, and can play an integral role in the management of diabetes.  They manage diabetes by supervising exercise programs and by providing treatment of complications. Physical therapists can:

  • Use special tests to check the sensation in your feet
  • Help decrease cramping pain during walking
  • Evaluate and care for skin ulcers and sores that are slow to heal
  • Improve your walking ability by adapting shoes or orthotics
  • Show you how to protect your feet if they have lost sensation
  • Recommend shoe wear or assistive devices if needed

Importance of Exercise

Exercise is an important part of managing diabetes. Regular physical activity can lower your need for medications, reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke, and help manage glucose levels. The American Diabetes Association recommends 30 minutes of moderate exercise at least five days per week. Your physical therapist can create an individual exercise program to help you achieve better health safely. You should see a physical therapist to help you with physical activity if you have:

  • Pain in your joints or muscles
  • Numbness or tingling in your feet
  • Pain or limping with walking
  • Used an assistive device such as a cane or crutches
  • Had a stroke
  • Questions about what type of exercise is best for you

Source: American Physical Therapy Association (APTA)