What began during the mid-twentieth century as broad research focused on combining genetics and developmental biology has evolved into the field we currently refer to as epigenetics. The idea that environmental factors can trigger epigenetic changes reflected at different stages throughout a person’s life and even in later generations is controversial, as scientific convention states that genes contained in DNA are the only way to transmit biological information between generations. However, new scientific evidence demonstrates that our genes are modified by the environment all the time, through chemical tags that attach themselves to our DNA, switching genes on and off.
Chronic pain is one of the most common health concerns for which people seek medical treatment. Research suggests that up to 50% of the population may be suffering from some kind of chronic pain, with back pain being the most common.1 There are a number of possible causes that may contribute to chronic pain including: diet, posture, age, and injury. Vitamin D is another factor that is now being added to that list. Vitamin D deficiency is a very common occurrence, especially in people living in colder climates. It has been linked to numerous health conditions, one of those being musculoskeletal (MSK) pain.2
A recent study published in November of 2012 found that MSK pain is related to vitamin D deficiency, and supplemental vitamin D improved pain. The researchers found that 95.4% of the subjects were vitamin D deficient, and 85.5% of the subjects had improvement in pain with vitamin D supplementation.2 Of the subjects that responded to the treatment, post-treatment serum vitamin D levels were significantly higher than in the subjects who did not respond to vitamin D supplementation. The study concluded, “Treatment with vitamin D can relieve the pain in the majority of patients with vitamin D deficiency. Lack of response can be due to insufficient increase in serum vitamin D concentration. Reassessment of serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D concentration is recommended in nonresponsive patients”.2
This study confirms the results of a number of other studies that have found the same results.3,4,5 The studies found that vitamin D deficiency may be responsible for generalized, non-specific pain, especially if it is resistant to manual and conventional treatments. A possible mechanism of why suboptimal levels of vitamin D can cause pain is that there is a reduction in serum calcium since vitamin D is responsible for its absorption from the digestive tract. This in turn stimulates the increase of parathyroid hormone which promotes the excretion of phosphate. Low levels of calcium phosphate lead to the deposition of un-mineralized collagen matrix on bony surfaces. When the collagen matrix hydrates and swells, it then causes pain by stimulating nervous endings on the periosteum.5
Due to the large proportion of the population that experience both chronic pain and vitamin deficiency, it would be prudent that healthcare practitioners and patients consider vitamin D levels a possible key-contributing factor. This may be especially useful in clinical settings such as pain clinics and chiropractic offices where there is a larger volume of [back] pain related cases.
The most recent data suggests that a person with less than 50 nmol/L of serum vitamin D is in a deficient state. The optimal levels are 100-160nmol/L. The most effective and accurate way to determine what dosage is required to reach optimal levels is to have your serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D assessed. The most recent guidelines from the American Endocrine Society suggest that 500-2000 IU daily are effective to maintain adequate levels. For those that are deficient, 50,000 IU once a week for 8 weeks, or 6000 IU daily to achieve a blood level of vitamin D above 75 nmol/L is most effective and safe.6 Doses of 2000 IU or less are not able to effectively raise serum levels into the protective range.
Vitamin D can be a simple yet very effective therapy for chronic, non-specific pain if you are deficient. To determine if this may be contributing to your pain, have a qualified healthcare practitioner assess your serum levels and supplement appropriately to restore your optimal levels. Consider liquid formulations to increase the ease of achieving higher dosages. In medicine, sometimes the simplest piece is often the most important. Vitamin D once again forces us to go back to the basics in the quest to achieve pain free function.
1) Andersson HI, Ejlertsson G, Leden I, Rosenberg C. Chronic pain in a geographically defined general population: studies of differences in age, gender, social class, and pain localization. Clin J Pain. 1993;9(3):174-82
2) Abbasi M, et al. Is vitamin D deficiency associated with non specific musculoskeletal pain? Glob J Health Sci. 2012;1:107-11.
3) Plotnikoff GA, Quigley JM. Prevalence of severe hypovitaminosis D in patients with persistent, nonspecific musculoskeletal pain. Mayo Clin Proc. 2003 Dec;78(12):1463-70.
4) Al Faraj S, Al Mutairi K. Vitamin D deficiency and chronic low back pain in Saudi Arabia. Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 2003 Jan 15;28(2):177-9.
5) Holick MF. Vitamin D deficiency: what a pain it is. Mayo Clin Proc. 2003 Dec;78(12):1457-9.
6) Holick et al. Endocrine Society. Evaluation, treatment, and prevention of vitamin D deficiency: an Endocrine Society clinical practice guideline. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2011 Jul;96(7):1911-30.