Diabetes Details 11: Doesn’t That Hurt?

A quick recap for newer blog readers: I’ve had type 1 diabetes for 13+ years, and I blog about it occasionally for several reasons:

  1. Because I know other writers read this, and it makes me cranky when stories get the details of my disease wrong.
  2. I’m comfortable talking about it, and I think helping people understand this stuff is a good thing.

Previous diabetes posts are, shockingly enough, tagged with the diabetes tag.

Anyway, one of the questions I get fairly often is “Doesn’t that hurt?” People asked that more back when I was taking 6-7 injections every day. Now that I’m on the insulin pump, all they see is the fingertip blood tests. But they still ask, and understandably so. Diabetes is a pretty needle-happy disease. (So if you’re needlephobic and don’t want to read about ‘em, this is your cue.)

The answer is … yeah, sometimes. It depends.

Let’s start with a picture I’ll call Jim’s Collection of Stabby Things. On the left is a typical insulin syringe. I keep some around just in case I ever have trouble with the pump.

In the middle is a spring-loaded tool designed to insert the catheter for my insulin pump. That white thing on the end is an adhesive sticker and a metal needle threaded through a teflon (I think) catheter. The spring jabs it into my belly, I pull out the metal needle, and the sticker holds the catheter in place for 2-3 days at a time, allowing the pump to deliver insulin.

I love technology.

On the right is the finger-stabber I use to draw a small drop of blood from my fingertips to test my glucose levels. I’d describe it as essentially painless. I test my blood without thinking, and I can’t remember the last time I noticed any pain. Which is odd, considering that this was the hardest thing for me to do that first time back in 1998. I remember holding that thing for several minutes, sweating as I tried to make myself press the button. These days, I don’t even think about it.

The ones they use for finger checks in the hospital, on the other hand, are the real-world equivalent of a gom jabbar from Dune. They’re one-size-fits-all, designed to pierce cave troll skin. Thankfully, mine’s adjustable, meaning the needle goes just deep enough to draw blood.

Diabetes syringes weren’t usually painful either. The needles are very thin. Every once in a while I’d hit a nerve or a blood vessel, which stung like hell, but that was the exception.

Getting the pump catheter into place … yeah, that hurts sometimes. It’s a slightly longer needle, and the spring shoots it in quickly to prevent the teflon catheter from kinking. I’d say about half the time it goes in with little-to-no pain, maybe 30-40% of the time it stings, and 10-20% of the time I shut the door so the kids don’t hear me swearing.

Beyond that, it’s been a fairly painless disease so far. Every once in a while someone at karate will forget and punch me in the insulin pump site, which isn’t fun, but it’s not crippling pain. More like getting whacked on a cut or bruise. And there are potential complications that could change things for me eventually — nerve damage being a big and nasty one. But considering this disease would kill me in days if I stopped treatment, I think the occasional painful jab to the belly is more than worth it.

I should point out that my experiences aren’t universal. Some people find the fingersticks very painful. (There are meters now that will let you test a blood sample from the forearm, which has fewer nerve endings to irritate.) I have a harder time with the pump than some people. I had to try several different styles before finding one that worked, for the most part, with my body. So take this as Jim’s Diabetes Experience, not The One True Path of Diabetes Pain.

Questions are welcome, as always.