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Is Vitamin D Making Me Feel Better?

This is the story of how I have turned into the crazy lady constantly telling everyone I meet to get their vitamin D level tested.

The thing about the vitamin D is that it could either be the cure I’ve been searching for, or have absolutely nothing to do with why I’ve been feeling better since about July. Either way though, I am feeling better these days.

Back in May, I went to visit a local weight loss clinic to try and lose some of the 60 lbs. I’ve gained since getting sick. While I was there they ran some routine blood work. And it turns out my vitamin D was low. Not like, “Oh, it’s just a little low, you should probably take a supplement” low.

My level was 6 ng/ml. It was literally the lowest the doctor at the weight loss clinic had ever seen.

To put it in perspective, the Vitamin D Council says it’s best to be between 40-80 ng/ml, while the University of Wisconsin recommends being between 30-80 ng/ml.

I had tested low before, like 19 ng/ml, but it was years before I suddenly woke up feeling like someone was stabbing me in the ribs. And I honestly don’t remember the doctor at the time impressing on me that it was any sort of an issue. I just figured it was like needing an oil change every 3,000 miles. Sure that’s the ideal, but your car isn’t going to just shut off if you wait until 5,000 miles.

So I told my primary care doctor about the results, and he and the weight loss doctor decided to put me on prescription-strength 50,000 IU vitamin D for three months, followed by a daily dose of 4,000 IU after that.

When I got home from my appointment, I looked through all my medical records — from Loyola University, the Mayo Clinic and the University of Wisconsin-Madison — and realized that not once had anyone thought to test my vitamin D.

I have literally had more than 35 blood tests, a handful of urine tests, and a more imaging than is probably healthy, but none of them were for vitamin D!

It turns out vitamin D is pretty important though, and has been shown to have direct links to chronic pain. It’s also not actually a vitamin, so much as a hormone. There’s all sorts of research on how low vitamin D can cause chronic pain, even specifically rib pain, which is what I have.

A recent study in The Pain Physician journal shows that, “Vitamin D, a hormone precursor essential for maintaining homeostasis of the musculoskeletal system, has long been proposed as an associated factor in CWP (chronic widespread pain). The most severe type of hypovitaminosis D, osteomalacia, features generalized body pain, especially in the shoulder, rib cage, and lumbar and pelvic regions.”

And another study from the American Academy of of Pain Medicine showed that, “The prevalence and clinical correlates identified in this pilot study provide the basis for the assertion that vitamin D inadequacy may represent an under-recognized source of nociception and impaired neuromuscular functioning among patients with chronic pain.”

In other words, if low levels aren’t the cause, not having enough vitamin D can make chronic pain more severe. And, low Vitamin D can also make pain medications less effective.

According to an article on the Mayo Clinic website, “patients who required narcotic pain medication, and who also had inadequate levels of vitamin D, were taking much higher doses of pain medication — nearly twice as much — as those who had adequate levels.”

So I was cautiously optimistic that getting my vitamin D levels back up could at the very least make my pain medications more effective.

But for the first few months, I didn’t really feel much different. I only told a few people about the vitamin D because constantly talking about possible cures is exhausting — everyone wants it to work so much, and then when it doesn’t you feel like you have personally failed at something.

So I only told my mom, my boyfriend at the time, and my best friend. My then-boyfriend was hoping for a miracle by day two. But alas, nothing. My best friend was hoping for a miracle by month two. But alas, nothing. And my mom, who I live with, wasn’t really putting her hope in it all. She had seen too many things not work.

But then, in July, I started noticing things. Like little things. Like I could go for a walk and not die afterward. And then, in August, I cleaned the freaking bathroom! Seriously, I did the floors, washed the mirrors and scrubbed the tub, all without ending up in the hospital!! And by September, I was even able to make the four-hour round trip trek to work without having to spend the entire next day recovering.

Slowly, but surely, I have started feeling better. I mean, I’m not cured. And I’m not holding my breath that I ever will be. I’m also completely aware of the fact that I could backslide at any moment.

And, I still take morphine on a daily basis, for now anyway. But I have literally gone off almost all my other meds, including the sleeping pill amitriptyline and the nerve pain medication Cymbalta. As for the hydrocodone, I’m down to like one or two pills a week at the most. And sometimes, I can go the whole week without taking any at all — which is pretty much a miracle of God if there ever was one.

There’s also been some weight loss. I honestly never went back to the weight loss clinic because they wanted to put me on a weight loss drug, and over the last couple years I’ve come to a place where I just don’t want to be on any drugs unless I have to.

Even so though, feeling better has meant that I’ve been able to walk three to five miles about six days a week all summer, and I’m excited to report that since May I’ve lost 30 pounds! WHAT?

I had a visit with my amazing doctor last week, and we talked about whether or not the vitamin D deserved any credit for my newfound ability to shower almost every single day.

When I showed him that I had a whole bottle of hydrocodone left over — I honestly used to run out of the drug a week early each month — he literally said, “Congratulations!”

He tested my vitamin D, and I’m happy to report that I’m now at 35 ng/mL — a much healthier level than six. As my doctor remarked on the top of the lab results, “Your vitamin D level looks good. You can safely keep taking your current dose of vitamin D supplements.”

When we talked about it during the appointment, he told me that the vitamin D could be part of why I’m feeling better, or it could be that the nerve that they think was causing the pain had shifted somehow. Or it could be something else all together. Maybe it’s the placebo effect, or maybe it’s all those Taco Bell Cheesy Gordita Crunches I eat every other day that have something magical in them.

So yeah, I don’t know if the vitamin D is the reason I’m feeling better or how long-term this could be, but honestly, I don’t care. I’m just happy that I can clean the bathroom again.

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What Pain Patients Can Learn from JFK

I’ve recently become kind of obsessed with the fact John F. Kennedy had health issues. Like major health issues. Like Addison’s disease, ulcers, colitis, and back pain issues, among others.

It’s one of the few things most people don’t seem to know about JFK. He was sick. Really sick. And he was often dealing with his health while running the country.

The Atlantic detailed some of Kennedy’s health issues in “The Medical Ordeals of JFK” back in 2013. They talked about how while JFK was in the White House he routinely saw an allergist, an endocrinologist, a gastroenterologist, an orthopedist and an urologist. JFK also regularly took amphetamines and had painkillers injected into his back.

In other words, he went through the same things a lot of us with chronic pain go through. Except, you know, he managed to run the Free World between steroid injections.

There’s a part of me that wishes he hadn’t hid his aliments. The article details how his campaign flat-out denied he had Addison’s disease. The day after his election, in response to a reporter’s question, JFK “declared himself in ‘excellent’ shape and dismissed the rumors of Addison’s disease as false.”

Personally, I had no idea that JFK struggled with so many health issues until I stumbled upon the information while researching chronic pain. And from what I can tell, most people in America don’t realize just how sick he was either.

I can’t help but wonder what he may have been able to do for the stigma associated with chronic illness if he had ever admitted to his aliments publicly though. Imagine if the stereotype of someone with chronic illness was JFK.  Sure, it’s a lot to live up to, but it’s better than what we face now, which is usually something along the lines of, “a lazy, druggie who probably brought it on themselves.”

And maybe he could have even helped people understand that cancer isn’t the only bad thing that can happen to you. And that sometimes, you don’t get better and you don’t die — you just stay sick.

But, there’s probably a good chance he would have never been elected if the American public knew he was seeing Max Jacobson, an émigré doctor from Germany who had made a reputation treating celebrities with “pep pills” (amphetamines).

The thing that really strikes me though is just how much JFK was able to accomplish despite his health. Most days, I’m in too much pain to drive to the grocery store, much less run for president.

From what I’ve read, it seems as though JKF was totally cool with popping as many pills as he needed to in order to keep going. As The Atlantic details, “[He didn’t] believe that the many medications he took would reduce his ability to work effectively; on the contrary, he saw them as ensuring his competence to deal with the demands of the office.”

In other words, he was all for medication if it meant he would be able to endure a press conference.

And I’m also guessing he was the type of sick person who had access to any and all medications that he thought would help him. Something most of us can only dream of.

There was definitely a point in my life when I would have loved taking hundreds of Norco each month so that I could have kept pace with my previous lifestyle. I mean, I probably wouldn’t have a liver anymore, but at least I’d still have my own apartment.

Even on my current doses, my main reason for taking drugs is so that I can do as much as possible. Sometimes that means a work trip to Arizona, and other times it means having the strength to sit up on the couch and type out a column.

So I can completely understand why JFK felt like he did about the pills. But I don’t think most people would.

Heck, the number one comment I get from anyone who finds out how many drugs I take on the daily is, “You need to get off all those medications.” I usually explain that if I “got off all those medications” then I also wouldn’t be able to get off the couch. 

I also assume that when JFK said he was in pain, at least one of the like 23 specialists he was seeing believed him and responded accordingly. Again, something most of us can only dream of.

He also probably had no issues paying for his medications or getting to doctors’ appointments. And I’m sure he was able to see the very best doctors in the country whenever he wanted.

Even knowing that he had all sorts of advantages as a sick person though, there’s still a huge part of me that feels really inadequate thinking about how much JFK got done. I mean, I have literally had to scale back every aspect of my life since getting sick. I quit my side job as a youth leader, which I loved with all my heart. I moved in with my mom. I started working from home. And I even stopped going to the mall as much as I used to.

For me, a big part of being sick has been losing so many of the things I love, and then figuring out how to cope with those losses.

But then, there’s another part of me that thinks of JFK and is kind of inspired. Maybe there is hope for me yet. Maybe I can still live in Brazil one day, or become a best-selling author, or heck, run for office just like JFK did. 

I just need to find that German doctor and get some of those “pep pills.”

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5 Ways TIME Gets Pain Pills So Wrong

TimeCover

Access to pain pills is not a cause I chose. I didn’t wake up one day and think, “Gee, more people need opioids.”

No, access to pain pills is a cause that chose me. Because I really did wake up one day two and half years ago, and say, “What is wrong with me? Why do I suddenly have insane pain in my ribs?”

It’s a pain that never went away. And for months, the doctors didn’t take me seriously. They gave me prescription-strength Advil, Lidoderm patches, and told me to wear looser bras.

None of that worked.

So, for weeks on end, the pain got worse and worse, while I tried multiple doctors, trying to find someone who could help.

I was in so much pain that I would often lay down on the ground mid-sentence because I didn’t have it in me to keep standing. The pain was just that overwhelming.

And at night, after trying to survive the day, I would lay in bed and plan ways to commit suicide. I wish I was exaggerating.

Finally, I found a pain specialist who put me on hydrocodone. At the time I had no idea that opioids were controversial. I was just happy to finally have found something that gave me relief.

The problem with hydrocodone though is that it comes with these crazy spikes. So you take a pill, it relieves the pain and then it completely wears off within a couple hours — and you to wait six hours for your next dose. It’s a horrible way to live.

I’m also on a time-released morphine that lasts about 8 hours. I take it three times a day — so I am always on an opioid, 24 hours a day. And then, on top of that, I also take hydrocodone as needed.

I pretty much always need it.

The pain still gets bad. But now, because of the pain pills, I have times when I am nearly pain free. Times when I can catch my breath and remember that life is worth living.

Opioids have literally saved my life.

Which is why I’m so upset about TIME magazine’s cover story about the “worst addiction crisis America has ever seen.” 

I realized when I read the article that I am spoiled by my Facebook news feed. I tend to follow chronic pain groups, so most of the information I see is about how chronic pain patients need access to these drugs. As a result, I’ve been lulled into thinking that the chronic pain community is actually making progress on this issue.

Apparently, we aren’t.

And it is articles like this that make it that much harder for pain patients like me to get the relief they need.

Let’s break down what it gets so wrong, with some quotes from the report.

(more…)

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