Movement disorders associated with diabetes

People living with diabetes may suffer from an array of movement disorders that can cause pain and dysfunction. Physiotherapist, Saadia Jantjes, tells us more.

In the last issue, I discussed the importance of getting active and incorporating more movement into your daily life. But what if you’re experiencing joint or bone pain, discomfort or just have difficulty moving?

One of the barriers preventing people living with diabetes from implementing exercise into their daily routine is movement or musculoskeletal disorders that develop due to diabetes.

Diabetic patients may suffer from an array of musculoskeletal disorders that can cause pain and dysfunction. This could result in a negative effect on the management of their diabetes, stress and a decrease the quality of life.

Common examples of such movement disorders

Frozen shoulder

Frozen shoulder is frequently on both sides in diabetic patients. It’s characterised by severe pain, increased tightening, stiffness, and restricts the range of motions of the shoulder. It has an incidence of 10 – 20% in Type 1 diabetes patients and 7 – 32% in Type 2 diabetes patients. Other risk factors include past shoulder trauma, cardiac-, respiratory- and cerebral diseases. 

Carpal tunnel syndrome

This is a neuropathy that occurs frequently in the wrist and hand. Diabetes is the most common metabolic disease that causes carpal tunnel syndrome, found in 14 – 16% of patients. It is also seen more frequently in women than in men.

Symptoms include paresthesia (abnormal sensation) that worsens in the evenings in the thumb, index, and middle fingers of the hands, which wakes the person up from sleep.

Pain in the wrist and hand can cause clumsiness and poor control of hand movements. It can cause a decrease in work production as well as pain in manual workers, office workers and drivers.

Diabetic peripheral neuropathy (DPN)

Peripheral neuropathy is nerve damage which leads to numbness, loss of sensation, pain or impaired sensation in hands, feet and legs.

The dangers of having neuropathy include loss of balance and poor control of extremities which could result in falls and further injury.

The prevalence of numbness and poor sensation means that bruises, cuts and abrasions are usually gone unnoticed and untreated, leading to ulcers which could result in amputation if infected. It is the most common complication of diabetes; about 60 to 70% of people with diabetes will eventually develop peripheral neuropathy.

However, studies have shown that diabetic patients can reduce their risk of nerve damage by controlling their blood glucose levels through correct nutrition and exercise.

Charcot arthropathy

This is a result of diabetic peripheral neuropathy. It is a progressive and degenerative disease of the foot and ankle joints, which causes damage and deformities of the joint if left untreated. Charcot’s joints are typically seen in patients over the age of 50 who have had diabetes for many years and have existing neuropathic complications.

What to do if one of these sound familiar?

Consult your GP and he/she will point you in the right direction. You may need further tests done to get a proper diagnosis and a consult with a specialist, like a neurologist, orthopaedist, or rheumatologist.

It is important to note that I have only highlighted a few and more common disorders. If you are feeling any pain during exercise or at rest, whether it is constant pain or intermittent pain, the best thing would be to consult your GP and get it checked out. Exercise should not be painful.

I’ve been diagnosed with a diabetes associated movement disorder, now what?

This is where your multi-disciplinary team becomes involved. Not only will you need regular check-ups with your GP, nurse and dietitian, but this is where physiotherapy and occupational therapy become an integral part of your management of your condition as well.

It may all seem incredibly daunting and scary. But keeping yourself informed is one of the best tools when managing your diabetes. The management of your condition is critical in preventing movement complications.

When the control of diabetes is poor, higher levels of diabetic complications result. Pharmacotherapy, diet, and a regular physiotherapy programme should be the cornerstone of diabetes management.

It is imperative to have an appropriate exercise programme, overseen by a GP, as an integral part of diabetes management to reduce the frequency and severity of complications.


Saadia Kirsten Jantjes is a physiotherapist with a passion for health and wellness. With a second degree in Sport Science, exercise is one of her favourite rehabilitation tools, to not only rehab injuries but prevent injuries too. Saadia has her own private practice in Morningside, Johannesburg, while working at a Sub-Acute Clinic and furthering her studies in Pilates.

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