Most people are familiar with the term “diabetes,” but few know exactly what the disease is or that it is alarmingly on the rise. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control, the incidence of diagnosed diabetes among adults rose 49% between 1990 and 2000. Currently 17 million Americans have diabetes and 200,000 people die each year from related complications. In this article, we will cover the causes of diabetes, steps you can take to prevent getting this disease, and the management action you can take if you have been so diagnosed.
Diabetes isn’t a new disease. References to it have been found from ancient times. Unraveling the secrets of the cause, however, has taken place in just the past century. Diabetes is actually two distinct diseases; both involve the hormone insulin, which is produced in the pancreas. Insulin converts sugar and starches (carbohydrates) to energy. It unlocks the cells and allows blood sugar, in the form of glucose, to enter the cells and be used by them. In normal situations, insulin keeps the blood sugar level, or blood glucose level, in a narrow range between 60-120 milligrams per deciliter, or mg/dL.
In Type 1 Diabetes, the individual, usually a child, typically has a history of suddenly developing the inability to produce insulin. It is thought that an autoimmune response triggers the destruction of the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. Consequently, glucose from food stays in the blood and cannot be absorbed by the cells. The body tries to respond by flushing the system, which causes symptoms of excessive thirst and frequent urination. Type 1 diabetes can be detected by a urine test and the treatment usually involves daily insulin injections to metabolize the intake of food. Only 5%-10% of all diabetes is Type 1.
Type 2 Diabetes comprises 90%-95% of all diabetes cases. This type of diabetes usually occurs in adults, although there are increasing numbers of younger patients. Unlike Type 1, in which the body cannot produce insulin, the Type 2 diabetic usually has adequate production; however, the body has developed a resistance to the hormone. This condition usually develops gradually and worsens with age. Weight gain, especially around the waist, occurs because glucose isn’t readily used by the cells and is converted to fat. Type 2 diabetes is usually detected by a blood test and depending on severity, is treated with oral medication and/or insulin. Diet low in carbohydrates and regular exercise are also important components of treatment.
An additional related diagnosis, called prediabetes, can be detected with a blood test. This condition is highlighted by higher than normal blood sugar levels. Major lifestyle changes such as limited carbohydrates and regular exercise have been shown to prevent a person with prediabetes from developing full-blown diabetes.
Complications of diabetes are varied, and include cardiovascular disease, peripheral neuropathy (a lack of sensation and positional awareness in the arms and legs), eye problems (diabetic retinopathy) and lessened blood circulation to the extremities (which in extreme cases can lead to amputations). Since 80% of all Type 2 diabetics are obese, lack of strength and endurance are also common.
Diabetes patients are often referred to a physical therapist for help with a variety of issues. One of the very most important components of treating Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes is a regular exercise program designed specifically for the needs of the individual diabetic. Thirty minutes of exercise can drop blood sugar as much as 100mg/dL, so this must be integrated into an overall treatment program. Care must be taken to utilize the right approach and minimize stress on joints. It is important for at risk individuals to work with professionals educated in the diverse medical conditions diabetics can present.
Physical therapists are experts in the examination and treatment of neuromuscular and musculoskeletal problems, which affect the quality of people’s lives. They are also versed in techniques that improve coordination, balance, postural awareness, strength and overall conditioning.
Public health officials agree that the widespread, decades-long American preference for fast foods (super-sized at that!), growing availability of sugary beverages in the schools, and much too little regular moderate exercise account for the sharp increase in diabetes. Often, habits take hold when we’re young, but it’s never too late to begin a healthier lifestyle. You only get one body!