The body uses a natural hormone, called insulin, to change sugar and other food into energy.
Diabetes develops when the body does not produce enough insulin or produces none at all. Or it develops when the body cannot use insulin.
People living with diabetes often suffer from other health problems. One complication can be damage to tissue on the feet. These foot ulcers can worsen if left untreated. Doctors may decide to remove the damaged area in an operation called an amputation. In some cases, the patient could die.
But a device being developed in Britain could help doctors recognize when ulcers are about to form.
Using a relatively simple temperature sensing device, doctors scan a patient's feet for signs of an ulcer. The information may help them prevent ulcers from forming, as well as improve the condition of the patient.
The scanning device is called the DFirst. It works by looking for hot spots, or places of higher than normal temperature, on the feet of people with diabetes.
Doctors believe that hot spots help identify areas of inflammation, which could lead to foot ulcers.
Untreated ulcers are a leading cause of diabetes-related amputations.
Robert Simpson is a researcher with the National Physical Laboratory near London. He notes that studies have shown a link between amputations and patient survival rates.
"If you have an amputation, then unfortunately the outlook is up to 50 percent of those who have an amputation are dead within two years, and up to 80 percent are dead within five years."
How ulcers lead to problems
Diabetes can cause damage to the nerves of the patient. Nerve damage can limit the patient's ability to feel pain. People living with diabetes may not feel an ulcer developing in its early stages.
Using the new scanner, Simpson said, doctors can clearly see areas of inflammation in what he likens to a temperature map.
"So what we have here is a thermal imaging camera core. This is sensitive to the infrared which has a strong relationship with temperature; so this provides you with a temperature map."
The problem of foot ulcers could be bigger than health experts have recognized.
A 2014 study by the World Health Organization (WHO) found that 400 million people live with diabetes. Some estimates say that 25 percent of patients will develop foot ulcers.
Simpson said, in Britain, the problem has led to an increase in the number of amputations.
"There are 140 amputations every single week, so that is nearly one every hour," he noted. He added that 80 percent of these were "driven by foot problems."
Researchers say that until recently doctors looked for hot spots with scanners that could not observe the whole foot. Because of this, problem areas could easily be missed.
Simpson said about 100,000 people in Britain have a foot ulcer. He said these people also are likely to develop another ulcer. He said it is important to help them better manage their health problems.
The current version of the DFirst is held with two hands. Researchers have been testing the scanner for two years. Designers hope that later versions of the DFirst will be as small as a smartphone.
I'm Mario Ritter.