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An insulin pump is a device used to provide insulin to help people with diabetes control their blood sugar. They are programmed to deliver tiny amounts of insulin continuously throughout the day. The insulin is delivered to the body through a tube inserted in the skin. Although the device eliminates the need for insulin injections, you still need to check your blood sugar often.

What Is an Insulin Pump?

An insulin pump is a small computerized device designed to precisely deliver insulin to the body through a small tube inserted in the skin. This eliminates the need for individual insulin injections. It is still necessary to check your blood sugar often, and the infusion sets (the tubing plus the needle or cannula) must be changed every two or three days. Insulin pumps provide certain benefits (see Insulin Pump Advantages), but are not right for everyone (see Insulin Pump Disadvantages). They can be a useful tool for controlling your blood sugar.
(Click Insulin Pump Uses for more information.)

How Do Insulin Pumps Work?

There are several different types of insulin pumps, but the basic operating principles behind all of them are basically the same (see Comparing Insulin Pumps). An insulin pump is worn outside the body, often clipped to an item of clothing. The pump itself is fairly small (about the size of a deck of cards or smaller) and looks much like any portable electronic device. It contains insulin (usually rapid-acting or short-acting) and is connected to a small, replaceable tube. The tube can be connected to the body using various different types of systems. Some use a steel needle that remains in place the entire time; others use a steel needle only to insert the tiny plastic needle (known as a cannula), after which the needle is removed.
Insulin pumps are programmed to deliver tiny amounts of insulin continuously throughout the day (the basal rate) and can also provide additional doses as necessary (bolus doses). The basal rate can be variable. In other words, you can program it to deliver different basal rates throughout the day. For instance, you might need to have a high basal rate for early morning in order to counteract the increase in blood sugar that occurs in the early hours of the morning (the dawn phenomenon).
Many insulin pumps also store information about how much insulin was used and when. This information can be downloaded onto a computer for you or your healthcare provider to analyze.
Recently, real-time continuous glucose monitoring systems have become available. Some of these systems can be programmed to calculate an appropriate dose based on your blood sugar reading, and some can even wirelessly send a signal to the pump to deliver the calculated dose. Even some traditional-style blood glucose monitors can communicate wirelessly with some types of insulin pumps.
Written by/reviewed by:
Last reviewed by: Arthur Schoenstadt, MD
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