Insulin Pump 101: What It Is & How It Works

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how does an insulin pump work

What Is an Insulin Pump?

If you have diabetes, you know that keeping your blood sugar in the normal range helps you feel better. You also understand that it’s important to carefully manage your blood sugar to prevent long-term problems caused by the disease such as kidney failure and blindness. One of the tools for doing that is called an insulin pump.

What’s an insulin pump and what does it look like? The device provides a regular flow of insulin and eliminates the need for long-acting insulin or multiple daily injections. It’s roughly the size of a smartphone and is typically clipped onto your clothing. It delivers insulin to the body through a tube that connects to what’s called a cannula that’s placed into a layer of fat, often in the stomach.

Types of Insulin Pumps

There are different types of insulin pumps to meet the varying needs of people who have diabetes. The pumps fall into two categories:

  • Traditional insulin pumps. These devices have a reservoir that holds insulin and a mechanism that pumps it into the body, as needed. Traditional insulin pumps are attached to the body with tubes and what’s called an infusion set. Buttons on the pump allow the wearer to coordinate insulin delivery, especially around mealtimes.
  • Insulin patch pumps. These insulin pumps are attached directly to the body and have a small case that contains the insulin reservoir, pump and infusion set. A separate device that communicates wirelessly with the pump enables the wearer to program insulin delivery.

Insulin Pump Parts

It’s helpful for people with diabetes, and their loved ones, to understand what the different insulin pump parts do. In a traditional insulin pump, there are three primary components:

  • Pump mechanism. The battery-powered pump has a reservoir for insulin, the pumping mechanism and an interface (buttons or a touch screen) for programming and operating the device.
  • Insulin flows from the pump into the body through a thin tube called a catheter. This tubing comes in different lengths to accommodate where the pump is placed in relation to the infusion set.
  • Infusion set. Attached to the skin with an adhesive patch, the infusion set has a thin tube (a cannula) on its underside. It’s inserted into the skin with a small needle housed inside. Insulin is typically infused into fatty tissue in the stomach, thighs, buttocks, hips, or upper arm.

A patch pump also has three main parts:

  • Insulin reservoir. This holds the insulin that will be infused into the body.
  • Pump mechanism. This device delivers insulin to the body.
  • The cannula penetrates the skin to provide access to a fatty tissue layer.

In a patch pump, all the components are contained in one case and there’s no tubing.

How Does an Insulin Pump Work?

If you’re getting one for the first time, you may ask, “How does an insulin pump work?”. It takes on the function of the pancreas, infusing small amounts of insulin into the body throughout the day to help you maintain a proper blood sugar level. This is what’s known as the basal rate.

The pump also provides a larger amount of insulin when you eat a meal. This is called a bolus. Your doctor helps you understand your insulin needs, in general, and most insulin pumps can determine the proper bolus amount for when you eat a meal based on your current glucose level and the amount of carbs you’re consuming. This is one of the nice things about how an insulin pump works.

Learn More About Insulin Pumps with Baptist Health

Learn more about what diabetes is along with symptoms, complications and commonly asked questions.