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Diabetic Stiff Skin And Joints: Can They Be Prevented?

Expertly reviewed by Dexter Macalintal, MD · Internal or General Medicine

Written by Lorraine Bunag, R.N. · Updated Jun 03, 2022

Diabetic Stiff Skin And Joints: Can They Be Prevented?

People who have diabetes understand that it may come with numerous complications. Uncontrolled blood sugar, for instance, can affect the nerves (leading to neuropathy) and eyes (causing retinopathy). On top of that, diabetes can also negatively affect wound healing. But, did you know that it can also lead to skin conditions, like digital sclerosis or diabetic stiff skin? Learn more about it here. 

Diabetic Stiff Skin, An Overview

Diabetic stiff skin, which is also called digital sclerosis, is a common skin condition affecting those who have long-standing diabetes (particularly Type 1 DM). 

Sclerosis means thickening and hardening. Hence, when a diabetic patient has digital sclerosis, it means that he or she has developed thickened and hardened skin of the fingers (digits). 

Diabetic stiff skin also typically appears yellowish and waxy. While usually painless, it can significantly reduce the sensation of the fingers. 


Diabetic stiff skin doesn’t occur spontaneously. In fact, it develops slowly. In most cases, the condition is symmetrical, meaning it affects the fingers of both hands. And while it primarily starts in the fingers, the stiffening and hardening may progress into the hands, arms, and body. 

Also, even though we refer to it as diabetic stiff skin, please note that the related joints may also stiffen. This is called diabetic cheiroarthropathy and it further limits the hands’ mobility. 

Prayer Sign and Trigger Finger

Severe cases of digital sclerosis and diabetic cheiroarthropathy can lead to the patient’s inability to press the palms of their hands together (prayer sign). When patients try to press their palms together, only the pads of their fingers will touch. 

Diabetic stiff skin and joints can also eventually lead to “trigger finger.” When someone has a trigger finger, that means they experience difficulty or inability to straighten or extend at least one of their fingers. Bent, the affected finger “locks.” When straightening, the finger might “click.” Trigger fingers may also feel painful with gripping. 

Treatment and Management

According to the American Diabetes Association, the only treatment for digital sclerosis is to control the patient’s blood glucose levels. To date, there’s no evidence that meeting your target blood sugar will reverse diabetic stiff skin, but it can stave off the progression. 

To bring your glucose levels under control, it’s crucial that you work closely with your doctors. As much as possible, do not deviate from the nutritional plan they prepared for you. Regular exercise is also necessary; just make sure that you’re doing it in accordance with your health status. Lastly, take your medications as prescribed. 

The American Academy of Dermatology also said that physical therapy might help keep your ability to bend and extend your fingers. Severe cases, however, might need surgery to “release” stiff connective tissues or tendons. 

Taking Action

Diabetic stiff skin, as discussed, may also affect the mobility of your hands. The best way to prevent it is to keep your blood glucose levels under control. 

If you notice thickening skin in your fingers (or any part of your body), please get in touch with your doctor. Catching it early means you might be able to perform some coping strategies to prevent it from getting worse. Examples of these strategies are stretches and hand and finger exercises. Of course, you’ll have to focus on reaching your blood sugar goals, too. 

Key Takeaways

People with diabetes mellitus, particularly those with long-standing type 1 diabetes, may develop digital sclerosis and diabetic cheiroarthropathy. These conditions cause the stiffening of the skin and joints, leading to reduced finger and hand mobility. With unmanaged blood sugar levels, the condition may spread to the arms or body. 
Currently, the only treatment for diabetic stiff skin is to control the blood sugar. In some cases, physical therapy and surgery may also be recommended. 

Learn more about Diabetes Complications here


Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Expertly reviewed by

Dexter Macalintal, MD

Internal or General Medicine

Written by Lorraine Bunag, R.N. · Updated Jun 03, 2022

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