Living with diabetes often leads me to wonder if what I’m experiencing—particularly when it’s an irritated joint or an overuse injury—is a consequence of being a regularly physically active person, getting older, or having diabetes, or some combination of those. Which one of these is causing my joint issues? Is it possible to know? I will attempt to answer these questions based on my deeper dive into the published research.
Personally, I have managed to avoid most overuse injuries (such as joint tendinitis) related to physical activity by engaging in cross-training and doing different activities on varying days, and this strategy worked well for me for over 25 years. Of late, though, I have started experiencing chronic overuse injuries (or sometimes just short-term joint irritation) that appear to arise not from most of my usual activities, but more from unusual ones—such as hand-scrubbing my house to get it ready to sell (dominant shoulder joint irritation), tamping down my front yard with a hand compactor (alternate shoulder joint pain that lasted for several years and recurs occasionally), driving a car for several hours in traffic after not driving far often (ankle joint tendinitis of some sort that took months to fully resolve), and random aches and pains in joints that come and go on any given day and may only last a few days at most.
Yes, I’m getting older (aren’t we all?), having successfully passed the half-century mark. I’ve also been living with type 1 diabetes for nearly 50 years (diagnosed at age four in 1968). My A1Cs are in recommended ranges (usually near 6.0%) and have been good ever since I got my first blood glucose meter in 1986 (after going 18 years with nothing but urine testing). I still have blood glucose fluctuations while trying to manage food, exercise, stress, occasional lack of sleep, hormonal variations, illness, and other usual factors that impact my daily levels. So, are my own occasional joint issues the result of being an active person (exercising daily for decades), normal aging, or long-standing diabetes (despite being in relatively good control for the past 30+ years)?
Are overuse injuries more likely to occur due to diabetes or aging? Overuse injuries from participation in athletic endeavors (even just walking) are more common in people with diabetes, likely due to changes in joint structures when exposed to hyperglycemia over time (1). But aging also increases the incidence of overuse injuries when exercisers are older (2). For instance, in one study, 70% of the injuries in older exercisers (over 60 years) were overuse injuries, but accounted for only 41% of injuries in younger adults (early 20s).
Is it due to inflammation related to aging or to diabetes? Aging lab rats have overuse activity changes to the structure of their tendons related to inflammation that may make them more prone to injury (3), but when it comes to humans, the research is unclear whether inflammation is involved (4). In one review (5), “prolonged systemic, low-grade inflammation and impaired insulin sensitivity act as a risk factor for a failed healing response after an acute tendon insult and predispose to the development of chronic overuse tendinopathies.” Perhaps, then, in people with diabetes, joint structures do not respond as well to or repair as quickly after activities (6).
Others have argued that low-level, systemic inflammation is not involved in changes to tendons that may lead to injury (4). People with diabetes have some structural joint changes that may or may not be related to diabetes duration or type, although poorer blood glucose management has been associated with higher levels of systemic inflammation (1). Fit, active adults with type 1 diabetes with good blood glucose control exhibit more inflammatory markers in response to exercise, but appear to recover normally (7). If someone has had “good” control for many years, does that lower the chance that their overuse injuries are diabetes-related? I’m quickly raising more questions than I can answer!
Other joint issues like frozen shoulder, carpal tunnel syndrome, and trigger finger are more common in people with diabetes, and structural changes to tendons may occur in people with diabetes (8). On the other hand, my non-diabetic, aging (mid-50s), reasonably active neighbor has had two frozen shoulders in recent years that clearly have nothing to do with diabetes or blood glucose management. I’ve also known people with diabetes who are active who develop a frozen shoulder, but others who get this condition are sedentary, suggesting that such joint issues are not consistently related to diabetes or habitual physical activity.
In short, if you are reading this in hopes of finding out whether joint pains and overuse injuries are more related to being active, aging, or diabetes, you are about to be sorely disappointed because I am unable to determine that based on available research. That said, it is likely that getting older (and not springing back as quickly) contributes to the rise in overuse injuries with aging, but that just means that everyone will have to find ways to be active that do not aggravate any existing issues. The best policy still is to vary your activities, try not to overdo or act like you’re still twenty, rest appropriately, and take time off when necessary to recover from injuries. Given we’re all aging and a significant number of us will be developing diabetes in our later years (if we don’t have it already), it is a topic ripe with possibility for future research.