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MRC News

Published on January 10, 2002
Collin Johnson
Health and Research News Service

JACKSON, Miss.—When someone discovers they have diabetes, their whole world changes. If not properly treated and controlled the disease may lead to stroke, amputation or death.

But physicians at Methodist Rehabilitation Center say diabetics can lead long, healthy lives by learning to control the illness and not letting it control them.

Last year Methodist Rehab treated more than 1,000 diabetic patients who either suffered a stroke or faced amputation. According to the American Diabetes Association, 16 million Americans suffer from diabetes with more than 5 million unaware they have the disease.

Diabetes is a disease in which the body does not produce or properly use insulin – a hormone needed to convert sugar, starches and other food into energy needed for daily life. The cause of diabetes is a mystery, although both genetics and environmental factors such as obesity and lack of exercise appear to play roles.

Diabetics like 33-year-old Morris Sasser have learned that properly controlling diabetes takes getting used to, but isn’t overwhelming.

“I’m hoping for a cure, but I’m learning to deal with it. It’s scary to have your world changed by all these dietary and physical changes,” said Sasser of Jackson.

Diabetics also have trouble with high or low blood sugar levels and often face amputation because of poor blood circulation. Methodist Rehab treats about 100 diabetic amputees a year.

“Diabetics have sensory problems and they can’t feel sores on their feet,” said Sabrina Sherrill, director of rehab surgery at Methodist Rehab. “And if they don’t know a sore is there and they don’t treat it, it can lead to an amputation. That’s why it’s vital for diabetics to examine their feet.”

Diabetes is also a risk factor for stroke and is a leading cause of strokes among younger people.
But diabetics can learn to control the disease, says Dr. David Collipp, medical director of orthopedic rehabilitation at Methodist Rehab.

“If diabetes is controlled, complications take longer to set in and some can be put off indefinitely,” he said.

Controlling diabetes always begins with the diet, said Dean Morrison, a registered dietician at Methodist Rehab. “The length and quality of a diabetics life depends on their eating habits,” Morrison said.

People with diabetes need to choose a variety of foods in order to get all the nutrients essential to their well being. Recent studies indicate that as long as diabetics maintain good control over their blood sugar, they can have occasional sugary foods, Morrison added.

To avoid complications, Dr. Collipp suggests that diabetics be aware of possible complications by getting a regular checkup. “You may not even know you have problems, but your physician can spot trouble long before symptoms appear,” Dr. Collipp said.

Warning signs of diabetes include:

  • Vision problems such as blurring and seeing spots
  • Tiredness or pale skin color
  • Obesity (more than 20 pounds overweight)
  • A numbness or tingling feelings in the hands or feet
  • Repeated infections or slow healing of wounds
  • Chest pain
  • Vaginal itching
  • Constant headaches (these may be a sign of high blood pressure)

Anyone who has any of these symptoms should tell their physician, Dr. Collipp said.

“Exercise is an important part of creating balance in a diabetic’s life,” said Sherrill. “It improves blood sugar control and that makes everything else easier. It also helps maintain the appropriate body weight and fight obesity.”

Along with regular exercise, Dr. Collipp also advises the following tips to maintain good diabetes control:

  • Keep blood sugar levels close to normal
  • Control your weight
  • Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet
  • Have regular check-ups
  • Check your feet every day for minor cuts or blisters and show them to your health care provider
  • If you have high blood pressure or high blood cholesterol, follow the medical advice you’ve been given

“Diabetes is a dangerous illness, but it doesn’t have to detract from the joy of everyday life if it’s handled correctly,” Dr. Collipp said.
“It’s rough at first, but you learn that if you’re careful you can do most anything as before,” said Sasser. “You just have to take care of yourself.”