Sweet Geek

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The A1c Is a Lie: How Mildly Bad Blood Sugar Levels Nearly Crippled Me

I’d like to share my experience living with “mildly bad” blood sugar levels, e.g. 140-200. In some circles, I realize this is not news, and they preach that anything over 140 can cause complications. Instead I am quoting every doctor who’s ever looked at my A1c or my daily blood sugar readings, and congratulated me on being “well controlled”, or only “mildly bad” but certainly not bad enough to either a) cause complications or b) warrant my requests for Metformin and insulin.

For two years, I was camping in that magical range. Not bad enough to get anyone with a prescription pad to take me seriously, but evidently bad enough to cause trouble.

One day while eating breakfast, I had a sharp stabbing pain in my right thumb. I yelped and clutched my hand, wondering what the hell had just happened. For the next 15 minutes, anytime I bent my thumb, the pain would return and I couldn’t think or move. Just waited for it to go away. This happened on/off for a week before I saw my doctor. They assumed that I must have somehow injured my thumb and had me splint it for 2 weeks. While splinted, my thumb didn’t hurt but when my two weeks were up and I took off the splint, the pain kept coming back.

I’m going to skip the very long rant/sob story where I spent the next 12 months seeing doctor after doctor, the best specialists money could buy in Chicago, and enduring three very painful (and failed) steroid injections. By the end of that year, they had investigated a number of possible diagnoses from trigger finger to carpel tunnel, but my thumb was still just as bad, and now both my hands were aching day and night as well.

Let me step back for a moment. I am a computer programmer and when I introduce myself I like to joke that “I am paid to type”. What I was going through wasn’t just about the pain, it was a threat to my entire career and sense of self. I was severely limited in how much I could work, and thanks to all the hoops I was jumping through with my keyboard and mouse to minimize the pain, was noticeably reducing my productivity. I didn’t know why but I was quickly becoming crippled, too disabled to work, play with my nephews, clean the house, button my pants…

Then I got lucky. In tears, I explained to my doctor that this was killing me and I needed an option other than exploratory surgery. She sent me to a physical therapist because she didn’t know what else to do with me.

The therapist measured the range of motion in my thumb, fingers and wrists then very bluntly said that if I didn’t figure out the cause, I really would be crippled. She showed me how my hands could barely open up anymore. I had “claws” instead of hands and was doing little things every day to compensate for it. I started a course of treatment, where she would massage my hands for an hour 3 times a week, which sounds pleasant until you see how she did it!

She would press those metal tools deep into my skin, working along the tendons, between the bones in my hands and in my joints. I could feel it scraping against these gritty lumps that I didn’t even know where underneath my skin. They were everywhere but especially on my tendons. Slowly, this “massage” broke up the insidious scar tissue and I could open my hands a bit further. After each session, my hands would double in size, hot angry red and I’d immerse them in ice for an hour afterwards, not feeling the cold.

It was some tough love but it worked. Over the weeks, I learned that this was from my diabetes. It wasn’t “just trigger finger” like the over-paid specialists thought. It was deposits caused by high blood sugar, coating my joints, sticking to my muscles and tendons.

After 3 months, the treatment was complete, or rather my insurance was done paying for it. She sent me on my way with instructions on how to massage my hands 10 times a day, flexing and pulling my fingers to prevent the claws from coming back. It’s been a year since I stopped treatment. I still follow what she says every day. Not because I’m a trooper, but because if I skip this for even ½ a day, my hands stiffen up. If I skip for a week, the thumb pain comes back in full force.

I was nearly crippled by my diabetes. My blood sugar wasn’t scary high. My worst A1c was 6.9, but most of the time was “just” 6.1. After fighting with doctors for over a year, I’m finally on Metformin and basal insulin, bringing my blood sugar down bit by bit. My hands are getting better since starting insulin; I only have to massage and go through my therapy routine 4 times a day.

I’m not sharing this to solicit advice or sympathy. I just want you to know that this or something else could happen to you. If your doctor is anything like the five that I have gone through, they may tell you that your blood sugar is fine. Don’t believe them.