Around 21 million Americans have diabetes, the University of Rochester Medical Center reports. Diabetes, an increase in blood glucose in the blood, affects the circulatory system in a number of ways. Circulatory problems from diabetes can cause increased disability and potentially life-threatening complications. Circulation problems worsen if diabetics don’t maintain good control over their blood glucose levels.
Diabetes features several factors that narrow the small, medium and large blood vessels in the body. Sugar-based complexes build up in the vessel walls in small blood vessels, decreasing blood flow through them. Atherosclerosis develops when excess fat in the blood builds up on the large blood vessel walls. Plaque, the substance that attaches to the walls, narrows the blood vessels and decreases blood flow through the arteries. In addition to narrowing of the blood vessels, diabetes increases inflammation within the blood vessels. Diabetics have twice the risk of heart attack or stroke from atherosclerosis, the University of Rochester Medical Center website reports.
Peripheral artery disease often causes decreased blood flow to the legs and feet. Legs may not receive enough blood flow when you’re walking, a condition known as intermittent claudication. Atherosclerosis can cause peripheral artery disease, but also causes decreased blood flow to the heart and other parts of the body. Damage to the small blood vessels in the eye causes diabetic retinopathy, which can lead to significant vision loss and blindness over time. Kidney damage occurs commonly in diabetes from problems with the blood vessels and reduced blood flow.
Symptoms of poor circulation can include pain when walking, chest pain during exertion, high blood pressure, infections in the feet from decreased blood flow or trouble seeing. Kidney damage can cause fatigue, fluid retention and protein in the urine in the early stages, and can cause kidneys to fail completely, requiring dialysis to remove waste products from your blood or a kidney transplant. Poor circulation leads to skin breakdown and infection, especially in the feet. People with diabetes have a much higher risk of foot or leg amputation due to the increased risk of infection from decreased blood flow through damaged vessels, the American Diabetic Association website states. Smokers with diabetes have the greatest risk of amputation because smoking also occludes blood vessels.
Many people with diabetes require insulin injections to remove glucose from the blood, if their pancreas no longer produces adequate amounts of insulin, or oral anti-hypoglycemic medications. Reducing weight and blood pressure helps decrease further damage to the vessels.
Keeping blood glucose levels low from the beginning helps prevent diabetic complications related to blood vessels. Prevention of diabetic complications involves frequent blood glucose monitoring, regular eye exams and blood pressure checks and constant surveillance of the extremities for signs of skin breakdown and infection.