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Insulin Pump Basics

Carrie Mccorkindale, MPH, RD, CDE
June 3, 2021

If you or your family member have diabetes, you must be familiar with insulin, or at least, heard of it. Insulin is a hormone made by the pancreas that helps regulate blood sugar. People with diabetes may not make enough insulin by the body and thus requires insulin injections. Insulin can be self-injected using a syringe or an insulin pen, and could also be delivered with an insulin pump. This article will discuss insulin pump basics that you need to know.

What Is An Insulin Pump?

An insulin pump is a small, computerized device that is programmed to deliver insulin into the fatty tissue under the skin continuously, mimicking the way the pancreas delivers insulin. The pump runs for 24 hours like a pancreas. Insulin pumps are worn outside of the body, so they are called external pumps. Most insulin pumps are about the size of a deck of cards and contain a reservoir that holds approximately 3-4 days of insulin.

Thin plastic tubing connects the reservoir, which holds insulin in the pump, to the infusion set. The infusion set allows insulin to flow from the pump into the skin and is attached by a strong adhesive. On the underside of the infusion set, there is a short, fine cannula, or tube, that passes through the skin and rests in the subcutaneous fatty tissue, usually around the stomach area. The infusion set is recommended to be changed every 3 days, otherwise, scar tissue will develop.

How Does Insulin Pump Work?

Insulin pumps are programmed to deliver a small amount of insulin continuously (basal rate).  The basal insulin rates are usually set up in your pump with your doctor. It also delivers bolus doses based on the amount of carbohydrates you plan to eat for the meal by calculating your insulin to carbohydrate ratio.  

Insulin pumps offer a steady stream of insulin, which could reduce the needle sticks compare to multiple daily injections.  They also help prevent highs, lows, and excursions of blood sugars with tailored insulin delivery.

Who Is A Good Fit to Use An Insulin Pump?

Insulin pumps are designed to replace multiple daily injections.  However, not all people taking multiple daily injections are good fits to be pump users. According to American Diabetes Association, a pump might be considered for:

  • People who like the idea of a pump.
  • Active people, who benefit from changes in basal rates or suspending the pump when exercising.
  • People who have frequent low blood glucose reactions.
  • Anyone who has delays in the absorption of food from the stomach.
  • Women planning pregnancy.
  • People who want to use the pump’s bolus calculator functions to determine insulin doses.

Most diabetes providers and insurance companies require patients to check their blood sugar at least four times per day before  go on an insulin pump. Checking blood sugar is important because it will warn you if your pump stops working properly, or your infusion set is not working.

To learn more about insulin pumps and understand if it's right for you, please talk to your doctor for more information.