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What Is an Insulin Pump?

An insulin pump is a wearable device that some people with diabetes use to get insulin, instead of getting it from an injection. The small pump runs on batteries and delivers short-acting insulin continuously. It is programmed specifically for the person wearing it.

Why Do People With Diabetes Need Insulin?

Insulin is a hormone that helps sugar (glucose) get into all the cells in the body for energy. Insulin is made in the pancreas and released into the blood when the glucose level goes up. Without insulin, the sugar in blood would get too high.

People with type 1 diabetes and some people with type 2 diabetes need to get insulin by injection or a pump every day. This is because either their pancreas can’t make insulin (type 1 diabetes) or their cells don’t respond to the insulin it does make (type 2 diabetes).

What Are the Benefits of Using an Insulin Pump?

People who use an insulin pump:

  • no longer need injections
  • often find it easier to keep their glucose levels in their target range
  • can adjust their insulin to match their activity level
  • rely on their pump to dose insulin precisely
  • can get added safety if they connect their pump to their continuous glucose monitor . When it’s connected, the pump can respond more quickly to changes in sugar levels.

Using a pump gives a person flexibility. They can choose injections instead of the pump anytime. Some people like to take a break from their pump from time to time.

How Does an Insulin Pump Work?

A pump delivers short-acting insulin in a way that is much like how the pancreas does it — steadily all the time and with bigger amounts when needed. Here’s how a pump delivers insulin:

  • Basal insulin rate: You program a basal insulin rate for the pump to deliver a steady amount of insulin. You can adjust the rate at different times of the day to match your child’s activity level and to keep glucose levels in a healthy range.
  • Bolus: You or your child can make the pump deliver a bolus (a larger dose) of insulin as needed for high blood sugars or to cover carbohydrates in a meal.

How Is an Insulin Pump Worn?

A small, soft catheter (also called a canula) is placed using a tiny needle in the upper arm, belly, hip, buttock, or thigh. Thin tubing connects the catheter to the pump, which is worn in a pouch, pocket, or on a belt. Together, the catheter, needle, and tubing are all called an infusion set. Throughout the day and night, the pump delivers a programmed amount of insulin that passes through the tubing and catheter into the body.

When the catheter is in place, your child won’t feel it. They can do their usual activities, including sleep. Some pumps can even be worn while bathing or swimming. The catheter stays in place for 2–3 days before you replace it.

What Are the Different Types of Insulin Pumps?

Insulin pumps offer different features. Some pumps can connect to a blood glucose meter or continuous glucose monitor and can help prevent hypoglycemia or treat hyperglycemia. Other pumps have carbohydrate calculators to help figure out bolus doses. They can also vary by how you refill them — either with a pre-filled cartridge or by hand.

To choose an insulin pump, talk to your child’s diabetes care team and your insurance. They can tell you which pump is the best choice for your child, if there’s a preferred pump they recommend, and how much to expect to pay for the pump and supplies.

How Do We Use an Insulin Pump Safely?

Many people who use insulin pumps find them to be quite convenient. But even with the convenience of a pump, to use one safely you still need to:

  • Check blood sugars often. Testing blood sugars throughout the day or using a continuous glucose monitor is key when using an insulin pump. A rise in glucose levels could mean that the pump or infusion set isn’t working, and insulin isn’t being delivered. This can lead to problems, like hyperglycemia, which could become DKA if it’s not recognized and treated. When someone uses a pump, they don’t have any long-acting insulin, so a pump malfunction can lead to high sugars faster.
  • Have an insulin back-up plan. Always be ready in case of a pump failure. That means having injectable insulin, needles and syringes, or an insulin pen handy. It’s possible your child will need to get an insulin injection right away if the pump stops working. Get in the habit of checking the pump at least once a day to make sure the tubing is in good shape, the reservoir has enough insulin, and the battery is well charged.

Ask your child’s diabetes care team what’s best for your child. They can tell you the pros and cons of an insulin pump and help you decide.

Reviewed by: Tal Grunwald, MD
Date Reviewed: 31-03-2022

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