Can Vitamins and Supplements Really Help With Pain?
By Moacir Schnapp, MD
Pain is a universal experience. Most of us will experience it several times a day. From headaches to joint pain, from cancer to ingrown toenails, pain is the most common reason we reach for medical care.
As a physician, I’m often faced with patients whose ailments could have been prevented or greatly reduced with the use of vitamins or basic supplements. I also find that patients frequently spend limited resources on ineffective remedies that can pose harm or at least postpone necessary medical care.
Vitamins and Supplements
From the early days of their discovery, the American people have fallen in love with vitamins. Heralded as the answer to all that plagues us, today we find entire supermarket aisles devoted to As, Bs, Cs, and a complete alphabet that promises health and longevity.
Often the claims of vitamins and supplements are baseless and sometimes outright lies, but it’s easy to see how convincing the arguments can be. For example, we know that lack of vitamin C can cause scurvy, a common cause of vascular damage and death among sailors during long ocean trips due to the absence of fresh fruits and vegetables. However, to assume that large doses of vitamin C can therefore correct all sorts of problems besides scurvy is a big leap and has never been proven. There are, however, vitamins that do exert a powerful effect on pain and that can be lacking in sufficient quantities in the body.
One of the most important is vitamin D, a chemical the body produces when the skin is exposed to sunlight, therefore it may be reduced in people who don’t go outside or who cover up when they do. Lack of vitamin D is a cause of osteoporosis, since D regulates the metabolism of calcium. Low vitamin D also appears to intensify the pain of arthritis during the winter months; most people with arthritis know instinctively how to “warm up the bones” by sitting outside on a sunny day. Fifteen minutes of sun early or late in the day may be sufficient for most folks to make the D they need; African-Americans and older people may need more sun exposure.
This is another good example of a vitamin which, when lacking, can lead to painful conditions. Vitamin B12 requires a partner to allow it to cross from the stomach to the blood, a protein called intrinsic factor. When this protein is missing, B12 can’t be absorbed and a person may develop low blood count, a condition known as pernicious anemia. The nervous system can also suffer damage from B12 deficiency, from the brain to the spinal cord and to the nerves of the feet, which can lead to severe painful burning and even paralysis of the lower extremities.
If B12 can’t be absorbed, the cure for the deficiency doesn’t rest on vitamin tablets but, instead, on B12 shots that bypass the stomach.
Nocturnal cramps, the so-called “charlie horse,” can be severe enough to make people jump out of bed in the middle of the night. The most commonly used home remedy for the cramps is to increase potassium intake through bananas with only modest results.
The best results for the treatment of cramps come from supplements containing magnesium, one among several electrolytes required to make the muscles work properly. For reasons that are not completely clear, magnesium at doses of 400-500 mg a day may be enough to help 80 percent of common nocturnal cramps. It is available over the counter.
It is not common knowledge that low iron levels can cause pain. People who suffer from restless leg syndrome (RLS), popularized on TV by pharmaceutical companies, complain that the legs are afflicted with a combination of pain, tingling and “fidgets,” starting when lying down at night. The condition intensifies at rest but improves for a few seconds by moving the affected limbs–therefore the need to move the legs constantly.
Though RLS has a strong genetic component that can’t be reversed, iron deficiency can be, and it is by far the most treatable cause of RLS. Doctors’ best option to evaluate the iron stored in the body is by measuring a protein called ferritin; people with RLS generally need at least 40-50 for optimum relief.
The best advice is to engage the help of your doctor or pharmacist. It is very difficult nowadays to separate news from sales pitch. Besides the financial consideration, improperly made supplements can and do cause harm sometimes, since there is little FDA supervision.
Remember that if your body lacks an important nutrient or vitamin, it may not be enough just to replenish it, but instead, to try and find a possible cause for a more permanent cure.
© Dr. Moacir Schnapp and Dr. Kit Mays