Living with diabetes blog

Understanding hypoglycemia unawareness

By Nancy Klobassa Davidson, R.N. and Peggy Moreland, R.N. August 10, 2011

A patient shared the following story:

She was in a grocery store and felt that something was wrong, so she walked over to the checkout lane and grabbed a couple candy bars off the shelf. She stood there in a daze, clutching the candy bars in her hands but not eating them. She must have looked like she needed help, because a woman walked over to her and asked if she had diabetes. The woman told her to open the candy bar wrapper and eat the candy right away. My patient was in such a confused state that she hadn't thought to do that herself. The woman stayed with her until she felt better and told her that she had a family member with diabetes, who she'd assisted before when he or she was in a similar confused state of low blood glucose (hypoglycemia). My patient was lucky to have received this assistance and avoided the need for an emergency medical response team (911) call for the seizures or unconsciousness that could have occurred with severe hypoglycemia.

Is this scenario familiar to you or a family member or friend with long-standing diabetes? This story is an example of "hypoglycemia unawareness" — a condition in which a person with diabetes doesn't experience the usual warning symptoms of hypoglycemia.

Usually, when a person's blood glucose drops, the body tries to raise it by releasing the hormones glucagon and epinephrine. Glucagon spurs the liver to release stored glucose from the liver into the bloodstream. Epinephrine signals the liver to produce more glucose and also causes the typical early warning signs of hypoglycemia — sweatiness, shakiness and weakness.

If you experience hypoglycemia unawareness, you skip these warning symptoms. Instead, without warning, you can lapse into severe hypoglycemia, becoming confused, disoriented or unconscious. This is because when you've had diabetes a long time, or experienced frequent, extreme swings of high to low blood glucose levels, you can lose the epinephrine response to low blood glucose.

In the next blog, I'll discuss more features of hypoglycemia unawareness, including the predisposing factors and possible treatment strategies for this condition.

Until next time, have a good week.

Nancy

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Aug. 10, 2011