Someone holding an insulin pump.
An insulin pump is a device that administers insulin in a diabetic's body.

How Does an Insulin Pump Work?

Diabetes is a chronic condition that affects the pancreas; either the pancreas is unable to produce insulin, or the body is unable to use the insulin that is produced effectively. Due to the lack of insulin or inability to use insulin, hyperglycemia occurs. Hyperglycemia is dangerous because it can lead to short-term and long-term side effects. There are several types of diabetes, but the most common types are type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes and gestational diabetes. Insulin is a hormone that can help people with diabetes and can come in the form of an insulin pump. How does an insulin pump work? Let’s find out.

Diabetes Symptoms

Symptoms of diabetes typically occur when glucose levels are high for extended periods of time. The most common symptoms of diabetes are:

  • Increased thirst
  • Increased urination
  • Excess hunger
  • Weight loss
  • Frequent infections (especially skin infections and vaginal yeast infections)
  • Slow-healing sores
  • Blurred vision
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Presence of ketones in the urine

What Is an Insulin Pump?

There are various ways to treat type 1 diabetes and type 2 diabetes. Someone with type 1 diabetes requires insulin for survival; because their pancreas no longer makes insulin, they must administer insulin whenever their body would naturally have made it, such as when consuming carbohydrates. They must also administer long-acting insulin. Someone with type 2 diabetes can manage glucose levels with diet and exercise. However, medications and insulin are often required.

For those who take insulin injections, an insulin pump is also an option. You may have heard about an insulin pump before. Insulin pumps are tiny devices, smaller than a deck of cards, that deliver precise doses of insulin. Insulin insertion usually happens in the abdomen. Insulin pumps are designed to be an extension of the body, almost like the pancreas. They deliver basal insulin, which replaces the long-acting insulin injection. The basal insulin setting allows the pump to deliver tiny micro-doses of insulin, 24 hours a day.

Insulin pumps also have “calculators” that allow the user to input various types of information, such as carbohydrates and glucose values, that allow the pump to give insulin based on this information. This replaces the rapid-acting insulin that would be taken at mealtimes for carbohydrates and hyperglycemia (also known as correction or sliding scale).

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Pros and Cons of Insulin Pumps

As with all types of medication therapies, there are pros and cons. Insulin pumps are extremely useful, but before starting on an insulin pump, the user should weigh the pros and cons.

The Pros of Using an Insulin Pump

Insulin pumps are extremely customizable and allow for many settings. For example, if a user requires various “basal” or “carb ratio” settings at different times, the pump can accommodate. It is difficult to have this type of customization to a routine using insulin injections.

They can also be discreet. Many users are squeamish about giving insulin injections in public. This can lead to hyperglycemia, as they either opt to skip an injection or give it later. An insulin pump user can easily pull the pump out of a pocket or unclip from the pants to give insulin without drawing attention to themselves.

There are also a variety of different pumps available. Pumps can use tubing, or they can be a “patch” pump, which means that the patch is filled with insulin and controlled with a separate device. Those who are interested in pump therapy should weigh the pros and cons of each device, as they all have unique features.

Most insulin pumps can sync with a continuous glucose monitor (CGM), which allows the user to read their glucose in real-time. A CGM helps to prevent significant hyper and hypoglycemia.

The Cons of Using an Insulin Pump

Insulin pumps are not infallible. They are a machine and we all know that machines can break. Insulin pump users should know their pump settings so that if a pump breaks, they can fall back on injections temporarily.

Also, insulin pump sites can kink, which can lead to hyperglycemia, and even diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA). DKA is a medical emergency. It is important that people with type 1 diabetes understand when to troubleshoot hyperglycemia and know when to check for ketones, how to manage ketones, when to contact their provider and when to go to the emergency department.

Most insurance plans have coverage for insulin pumps. However, coverage for insulin pumps and CGMs for those with type 2 diabetes is not as widely covered. Coverage is improving as healthcare providers advocate for their patients, as pump therapy is an excellent treatment for anyone who requires insulin.