Insulin Pumps: How they work and how they can help improve blood sugar control.
Every person living with Type 1 diabetes requires insulin treatments to keep blood sugar under control. A large majority of those with Type 2 diabetes also have to administer insulin to manage their disease.
Not all that long ago, the only way to do this was through injection by a needle and syringe, which still happens to be a very common option today. Then, came the insulin pen, which made the process a little easier by eliminating the need to draw insulin from a vial.
Nowadays, many individuals with Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes are administering insulin through an insulin pump, a small, computerized device that takes much of the guesswork out of insulin treatments. Pumps mimic the way the body would naturally release insulin into the bloodstream in a person without diabetes.
How do insulin pumps work?
Insulin pumps essentially replace a healthy functioning pancreas in that they release a set amount insulin throughout the day and night. This is done on a pre-programmed schedule based upon a person’s individual insulin needs and physician instructions. An insulin pump is programmed to deliver both a basal dose of insulin, the steady flow needed to regulate blood sugar long-term, and bolus doses, extra boosts at mealtime to compensate for the rise in blood sugar that naturally occurs after eating. As the user, you will be required to manage and program your device based on changes in diet, eating schedules, and activity.
The two types of insulin pumps
Traditional or “tethered” insulin pumps
These devices are worn outside the body and are usually about the size of a smartphone. They can be clipped to belts, carried in a pocket, or attached to a strap worn beneath clothing. Inside the pump, there’s a reservoir or cartridge that holds enough insulin to last for several days. The pump connects to the body via a thin plastic tube that is part of what’s called an infusion set. An infusion set can remain in place for two to three days before needing to be replaced and includes:
– Plastic tubing to carry the insulin from the pump to the body.
– A cannula, which delivers the insulin. This small and tapered tube or needle inserts under the skin at a spot on the body called the infusion site - usually the abdomen, thigh, or buttocks. The cannula is held in place by an adhesive patch.
A more recent innovation in insulin pump technology is commonly referred to as the patch pump. These devices operate essentially the same was as tethered pumps, delivering a steady stream of basal insulin and additional bolus boosts at mealtime.
The big difference, and many would say the big advantage, is that patch pumps do not require an exterior device to store insulin and regulate dosage. Patch pumps, like the popular OmniPod Dash System, store insulin in a chamber that’s embedded inside a low-profile patch. This patch attaches directly to the body. Because the insulin is stored within the patch, no tubing is required and there is no exterior pump needed. Instead, insulin delivery is regulated by a hand-held device that links to the patch through a wireless connection. Simply put, as the user you wear only the patch with nothing else physically attached to it or you.
Advantages of insulin pumps
First and foremost, insulin pumps tend to be more accurate than traditional insulin injections. Pumps do the work for you throughout the day, and for those who have trouble controlling blood sugar, this can be a huge advantage, reducing highs and lows and lowering overall A1C scores. Of course, better blood sugar management also reduces the risk of diabetes-related health complications, including cardiovascular disease, kidney disease and nerve damage.
Another big plus is that patches and infusion sets only have to be changed about every three days. So, let’s look at an example. If you’re administering insulin four times a day manually, multiplied by three days, you go from 12 individual injections over that three-day period to just one prick when you switch to an insulin pump.
Finally, if you’re someone who needs multiple injections each day, a pump can feel a bit more discreet when out in public, as you won’t need to administer any injections. Plus, you won’t have to plan your day around treatments, which provides a wonderful sense of freedom for many people.
Insulin pump disadvantages
If you’ve grown accustomed to using insulin syringes or pens, there will be a learning curve when you switch to a pump system. It is absolutely critical that your pump is working properly and used correctly. If not, you might receive too much or too little insulin, which can lead to serious and even life-threatening complications. Before you consider switching, be sure you’re ready to work with your doctor and care team to learn about your new pump and make sure you know how to program it up properly.
Some people also find a tethered device uncomfortable and a nuisance when performing physical activity. New patch pumps do a lot to alleviate this concern, but it’s still one worth noting.
Finally, a pump administers insulin, but it doesn’t test blood sugar. That means you’ll still have to test regularly to make sure the pump is working properly and that your blood sugar is where you want it. Some pumps can integrate with compatible continuous glucose monitoring devices (CGM) and can even re-calibrate insulin dosage based on CGM data. This obviously makes the process easier and can provide added blood sugar control. However, having a pump doesn’t eliminate the need to test blood sugar.
How much will an insulin pump cost?
The price of insulin pumps varies depending on the brand and model. Also, remember that infusion sets are disposed of every few days, so you will need to purchase these on a regular basis.
Many insurance companies will cover at least part of the cost of insulin pumps. However, if you have a high deductible you may end up paying for a sizeable chunk out of pocket. Additionally, some carriers only cover certain pumps, and the one your doctor recommends might not be on the list.
The good news is that there are alternatives, including shopping at online diabetic supply companies, such as Diabeticteststrips.org. While unable to accept insurance, Diabeticteststrips.org offers prices on diabetic supplies that are up to 65% less than most pharmacies and other suppliers. Additionally, if you do carry insurance or Medicare coverage, you may qualify for reimbursement after your purchase.
Is an insulin pump right for me?
It’s really a personal choice. Countless individuals living with diabetes do very well managing their disease and controlling blood sugar with traditional insulin injections by syringe or insulin pen.
However, if you require multiple insulin injections each day or have difficulty controlling blood sugar no matter how diligent you are, then an insulin pump just might be the right call.
Ask your diabetes physician about whether or not an insulin pump is a good fit for your diabetes management plan. Discuss your options, responsibilities, the costs, pros, and cons to see if it’s something you might want to explore.
Diabeticteststrips.org is a trusted supplier of diabetes care products and accessories. For more information and to explore a complete range of products, including glucose meters and test strips, insulin syringes, pen needles, continuous glucose monitoring systems, and more, visit www.Diabeticteststrips.org.