Tags: aches, arthritis, doctor, exercise, flare, flare-up, GP, joint pain, knee, NHS, pain, physio, physiotherapy, prednisolone, R.A., RA, rhematoid arthritis, Rheumatoid arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis (RA), sleep, steroids, stiffness
Well, yes, the knee flare was completely over … for a few days. I was just getting back into the swing of things, gradually building back up the length of my lunchtime walks from a few hundred yards to half a mile, to three-quarters of a mile … thinking I’d soon be back to the mile-and half … and then I woke up in the middle of last Friday night thinking ‘Ouch!’ I’m telling myself it’s not really flaring this time … I haven’t decided yet whether I’m lying to myself.
I certainly don’t want another dose of prednisolone just yet… if they’d even give me one, which I doubt. Having said I never have side effects, Carla happened to mention that sleeplessness and irritability are major side effects of pred, and guess what… I had a really sleepless and irritable week while I was on it – I just failed to attribute it to the pred. Now it all makes sense. And OMG, the night sweats!! I had no idea that was a side effect and I get hot flushes anyway so I just thought, ‘Coo, bad hot flushes, much worse than usual!’ I was slightly worried that this was more than hot flushes as the ‘sweats’ part was a whole lot more dramatic …again, I hadn’t realised this is a common side effect of the pred.
Now I’m still ALL for the steroids – the side effects, now I realise that’s what they were, were horrible, but the flare was much, much worse. The side effects I personally experienced were definitely the lesser of two evils and the pred let me carry on with my life and work, which I couldn’t have done without it. However, having said that, it does make the thought of another does quite unappealing if it can be avoided.
This time round the knee’s not hot, it’s not especially swollen and it’s not actually madly painful … it’s stiff but bendable, so really quite different to the definite flare I recently experienced.
Remember those knee-strengthening exercises I was doing, so that if I flared again I would have strength in the surrounding muscles and hopefully come out of it faster? No? Well you wouldn’t because I forgot to post about them. Unfortunately I have also forgotten to do them for the last few months, which is a pity really because I suspect that’s what the problem is now. As a horribly unfit person, having a bit over a week practically off my feet means I do need to build up those muscles etc. again and I think the minor pain and stiffness I’m experiencing is probably all about that.
So, spend goodness knows how long fighting for a doc appointment, to be told, if I’m lucky, that they’ll refer me to physio, which will take six weeks minimum, by which time I hope I’ll have recovered anyway, or just carry on and hope? I’m going for the latter at the moment. Wish me luck!
Tags: aches, arthritis, blood test, cats, doctor, flare, flare-up, GP, hospital, joint pain, knee, medicine, methotrexate, MTX, NHS, nurse, pain, R.A., RA, rhematoid arthritis, rheumatoid, Rheumatoid arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis (RA), rheumatology, stiffness
Thanks to the state of the NHS today (which, if you read this blog often you will know I harp on about endlessly) it is simply not possible to have a relationship with your GP these days (unless you’re incredibly lucky or live on some tiny island that actually has its own GP or something!) My GP practice has around 10 GPs plus locums. It’s pot luck who you get to speak to when you call and they phone you back, and then if they decide you should be seen you won’t see the person you spoke to that morning.
It also seems that they don’t have much of a relationship with the hospital and seem to have some sort of mythic belief in the power of the rheumatology helpline, as I’ve also mentioned before.
The patient calls the GP because they have an RA flare. This is a shocking waste of the GP’s time because these lucky, .lucky patients have an RA helpline that they can call and that will solve all their problems. They can speak to a lovely nurse* straight away and the nurse will wave her magic wand, waggle her magic pixie ears and solve the patient’s problem.
* Actually that’s the only true bit – the one we have at the moment IS a lovely nurse!
The lovely nurse, or even a secretary or receptionist, never EVER answers the helpline. It is an answerphone. That’s the way it’s set up. It’s not an answerphone on odd occasions when they’re exceptionally busy, it’s ALWAYS an answerphone. The message on the helpline says something like: ‘If you’re calling about a non-RA related problem, please call your GP. If you’re calling to change an appointment, please call reception. If you’re calling about an urgent need, please call your GP. If you’re calling to buy fish, please contact your fish monger. If you’re calling to moan about Brexit, please contact your MP. If you’re calling because you’re a moron, voted ‘Leave’ and can’t work out what a helpline is for, please call someone else and bother them. Now, if you really, really want to leave a message, we suppose you can. Give us your hospital number and name and telephone number and we’ll try to call you back in 24 hours – but no promises mind.’
I don’t know about you (actually I probably do, if you have RA) but I consider a flare pretty urgent.
While in an ideal world I would sit back on a couch, watch the telly and let my servants feed me grapes while I rested my knee and waited to see if it would clear up on its own, I do actually have a life (and no servants, and hubby is great but also has a life, and the cat just ain’t interested in helping), so I can’t just sit about and rest it. On that basis I can’t wait potentially 48 hours or more for the helpline to phone, and the nurse say, ‘Call your GP and get some prednisolone’ because then I can’t call the GP until Monday as 48 hours is Friday morning and by the time I’ve heard back from the helpline the GP has run out of appointments. By that time I will have been flaring for over a week!
What Polly did Next
So … I went to the appointment grudgingly granted me by the grumpy GP. (Ooh, nice alteration that penguin!) Fortunately it’s with a much more pleasant locum GP than the one I spoke to on the phone. Unfortunately of course she doesn’t know me from Adam (or strictly speaking, as a doctor, she can probably spot I’m not Adam from the wobbly bits, so I should say she doesn’t know me from Eve). This means that she doesn’t know if I’m a moron or not, and therefore has to assume I am, as we always have to cater for the lowest common denominator.
‘How can I help you?’
‘I’m having an RA flare in my knees, as usually particularly in my left knee. It’s stiff, not very flexible and painful at times.’
‘Have you called the helpline, because really -‘
‘Oh, and what did they say?’
‘I said I’d called them, not that I’d spoken to them!’ I then explained, gently, ’cause she was a locum and therefore wouldn’t necessarily know any better, the realities of the helpline. (I didn’t mention Brexit or fish mongers.)
‘Hmm, you had a blood test only yesterday and your bloods were hardly elevated at all.’
‘They never are.’ The mere fact that my bloods are even a smidge elevated is a pretty strong indication of a flare with me. Sometimes I flare and there’es no indication whatsoever in the bloods. Now this is where a doctor relationship would come in handy. If she’d actually known me, known that I’ve had RA for nearly ten years, known that I’ve had umpteen flares in my left knee, known that blood tests are not a helpful indicator with me, known that I have a brain, we could have skipped the pointless bits, more of which are coming up.
‘Ah, well let’s have a look.’ Prod, poke.
‘Did that hurt when I pressed there?’
‘No, I just thought I’d make screamy gurgling noises for fun.’ (Nope, I didn’t really say that either, I just said yes.)
‘Can you bend it?’
‘This much.’ Demonstrated a very slight bend.
‘Ah. Have you tried pain killers… like paracetamol?’
I’m afraid I just looked at her and laughed, finally managing to choke out a ‘yes’, followed by ‘interspersed with ibuprofen.’ She looked amazed that I’d been able to think of painkillers all by myself.
‘Well I’ll prescribe a course of steroids. Now if they don’t work, we’ll have to consider other possibilities like osteoarthritis, as they should work for RA.’
‘Well, they’ve worked every other time I’ve had them, so touch wood that they will this time too.’
‘Oh … right.’ Look of mild astonishment, either that I’d had them before (it’s in the notes dear) or that I actually knew that I’d had them before, who knows.
So I thanked her very nicely, ’cause I’m a well brung-up penguin … and I might run into her again, and off I went to the chemist to get my steroids.
Again, after nearly ten years of RA, I think I recognise an RA flare when I see one … I really hope I’m not proved wrong and that the steroids do work again this time and it doesn’t turn out to be OA. That would be sooooo embarrassing after this post!
Tags: aches, arthritis, fatigue, flare, joint pain, knee, methotrexate, pain, RA, reaction, Rheumatoid arthritis, stomach upset, stress, tiredness, work
Well the knee is certainly a whole lot better and I’m now tapering off the steroids – I ended up with 11 days on 40 mg and then a taper down to nothing. The bad news is, not surprisingly, it’s not 100% better yet, and so far I haven’t managed a full day’s work since this started. Fortunately (not from a financial standpoint, but otherwise) we’re not that busy right now. I’m not too worried as that’s often the case in January and there are things simmering away that should come in over the next few months, and it does mean that if I just can’t manage a full day then so be it. At least the boss can’t get cross with me! (Having said that, I’m probably my own harshest critic, so I guess I can get cross with me!)
On top of the whole knee thing, yesterday I had what was pretty much certainly a full-blown methotrexate-related stomach upset, so I’m very glad now that I’m going on the injected stuff in a couple of weeks! Feeling OK today, if a little tired, but I was a complete wreck for a while last night – thank heavens for Imodium is all I can say!
Still, even if I don’t last all day today at work, I’m confident that I’ll be doing so by the end of the week, so things are on the up! I hope things are going well for all of you too.
Tags: arthritis, flare, joint damage, joint pain, pain, RA, rheumatoid, Rheumatoid arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis (RA)
Yay – the swelling has pretty much all gone and so has the inflammation – I have pretty much full ‘bendability’ back in my left knee – woohoo … but yes, I’m still being careful! Of course if you have an injury, swelling and inflammation happens for a reason – to take more blood to the area to repair the injury, and to stop you moving it in ways that are going to cause the injury to worsen. Now in RA, given that it’s those helpful wee blood-cells that are actually doing the attacking and causing the injury, it kind of confuses things a bit, but nevertheless the swelling DOES stop you moving the joint in ways that are likely to cause more injury … and when the swelling’s gone, so is that warning and protecting system. And one thing hasn’t gone yet … the pain! Luckily the pain isn’t there all the time for me, which is great – I’m very, VERY glad about that – but it does mean that while I’m sitting at my desk pain-free and want to leap up and get a cup of coffee, it’s rather important to remember not to leap unless I want to end up an embarrassing heap on the floor!
Tags: arthritis, Arthritis Research UK, exercise, fatigue, flare, inflamation, knee pain, National Arthritis Week, pain, R.A., RA, rheumatoid, stiffness
It’s National Arthritis Week in the UK from 12-18 October and Arthritis Research UK are running a ‘story wall’ in its honour. My story (in 250 characters, which is a bit mad, but there you go, we’re the Twitter generation!) is up there somewhere on the wall – or will be soon. Why not go and put yours up too? You can see the wall here and put your own story up here.
10 million people live with Arthritis (in all its various forms) in the UK and Arthritis Research UK do a great job in supporting us, so I’m very happy to support them with their efforts for the week. They not only fund research, but also provide patient talks around the country so that we can find out what’s happening research-wise. Hubby and I went to a very interesting one a couple of months ago given by my very own rheumatologist – not that he recognised me – after, I haven’t had a six-monthly appointment for nearly two years, as the hospital keeps cancelling them – but that’s a whole nuther story! Posting about the stuff he was talking about is on my very long list of things to do!
I got latched on to by a very pleasant lady who tried to assure me that all I needed to do was take cider vinegar and honey to be cured. Strange that she was there and very clearly not cured, and yet still spouting this stuff. Funny, things people.
Anyway, I digress – please support Arthritis Week – there’s loads and loads of stories up on the wall already but the more the merrier, and it all goes towards helping arthritis research.
Tags: aches, arthritis, doctor, exercise, flare, flare-up, joint pain, methotrexate, MTX, NHS, pain, R.A., RA, rhematoid arthritis, rheumatoid, rheumatoid arthritis (RA), rheumatology, work
I woke up yesterday morning with really bad pain in my hip/lower back, but by lunchtime it had passed off, so I had a lunchtime walk yesterday as usual, and very pleasant it was too, until about half-way round, when I got a very sharp pain in the side of my foot, just behind the little toe. (Same leg as the hip pain.) By the time I got back to work the pain was coming in short, sharp bursts lasting up to about 10 seconds and then was fine in between … but in between wasn’t very long! It was happening at least twice a minute. I took paracetamol and, three hours later, ibuprofen, but to no avail. We had to go shopping that night and I limped around the supermarket and then asked hubby to drive home as I was in too much pain. It wasn’t the worst pain I’d ever experienced but it was BAD. My foot just in that area was bright red and swollen, so that sounds like RA, but the odd coming and going of it doesn’t seem quite right. I THINK it was RA and I’m just a weird patient!
Anyway, of course being Monday last night was m-m-m-methotrexate night. I went to bed still in a LOT of pain, and woke up in the middle of the night thinking, ‘OOOH, my foot hurts’ and then again, some time later in the middle of the night, I think around 3:30, thinking ‘OOOH, my foot DOESN’T HURT!’ And it hasn’t hurt since. I have no idea what’s going on or why, but MAYBE it was lucky that that happened on a Monday and the methotrexate kicked in. I don’t think it’s supposed to work like that though, is it? It’s supposed to be a slow build-up, not a week by week thing. Perhaps it was just a short, sharp flare-ette and just finished then. Perhaps it wasn’t RA at all. They mystery of what is and isn’t RA is certainly … mysterious …
That reminds me of the time a few weeks ago when I was getting sharp pains and bad headaches that felt like they were on the outside of my skull. Not the first time this has happened, you may recall. Oh dear, I thought, I hope this isn’t giant cell arteritis – I think it’s that sort of symptom … and then I realised I was wearing a hair-slide that was being pushed into my head by my transcription headphones! Much relieved that I worked this out by myself and didn’t bother the poor, overworked GP with it!
Anyway, the good news is that the answer seems to be ‘not to flare’ at the moment, but I’m having a day off walks this lunchtime just in case it happens again!
Tags: aches, autoimmune arthritis, blog carnival, joint pain, knee, NHS, pain, physical therapy, physio, physiotherapy, R.A., RA, rhematoid arthritis, Rheumatoid arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis (RA), rheumatology, sleep, stiffness, stress, tiredness, WAAD, WAAD blog carnival, work, World Autoimmune Arthritis Day
This post will be part of the Word Autoimmune Arthritis Day Blog Carnival. WAAD is May 19th 2014 but you can sign up for it now over at the site. This year’s theme is “A Day in the Life of an Autoimmune Arthritis Patient.” I hope I’m not cheating, but I’m going to describe two days – one just post diagnosis and one post-“control” where I am now!
4:00 am A day in March 2008
Wake up hurting – everything’s hurting. My neck and shoulders are very stiff, my back aches, my feet are killing me, one arm is numb and the other has pins and needles going from shoulder to finger-tips – but oddly only the little and ring finger.
Worry – a lot. Come on, I was diagnosed as ‘likely’ are in November last year, and definitely in February – so how come it’s still not sorted. OMG, what if it never does get sorted? Am I going to end up a wheelchair? Will I cope? Will hubby cope?
And where the heck is that physio appointment they promised me months ago?
4:00 am A day in March 2014
7:00 am March 2008
Wake up feeling completely un-refreshed and cursing myself for having spent an hour in the middle of the night worrying instead of sleeping. Worry some more as I creak my way gradually out of bed, gently testing bits of me to see how mobile they are. The relief of shaking off the pins and needles and then plunging my hands into warm water is enormous.
7:00 am March 2014
Wake up, blinking the ‘sleep’ out of my eyes. Slight stiffness. Hubby draws the curtains and says, ‘How’s the Penguin?’ ‘Stiff and achy,’ I reply, but then I realise that this is nothing to how it felt a few years ago, really NOTHING, and instantly feel a bit better.
7:30 am March 2008
Take a hydroxychloroquine and a diclofenac and wonder if they’re helping or not. I know I have to wait another couple of months to find out. It’s frustrating!
7:30 am March 2014
Take a hydroxychloroquine and an ‘arcoxia’ cox-2 inhibitor. I had to stop taking the diclofenac eventually after a nasty stomach upset – the arcoxia are supposed to much worse for the stomach, but so far don’t seem to be worrying mine!
8:00 am March 2008
The stiffness is just starting to think about wearing off. My left knee is very swollen and I hobble out to my car using a stick, to head off to work. I’m wondering how I’ll make it through a whole day!
8:00 am March 2014
Stiffness? What stiffness? Did I say I was stiff and achy this morning? Heavens! I’d forgotten. That wore off in about ten minutes.
9:00 am March 2008
Work – chat to colleague – drink strong coffee – work some more. Try to remember to MOVE because otherwise I freeze into place and struggle to get out of my chair when I need to later.
9:00 am March 2014
Work – chat to colleagues – drink decaffeinated coffee (this change has nothing to do with the RA, but I have rosacea and the symptoms of that are drastically decreased by drinking only decaf coffee rather than ‘caffeinated’), work some more. Move when I want to – it’s not a particular issue any more.
12:00 pm March 2008
Strewth I’m stiff – I got a bit too involved in some interesting work and haven’t moved out of my chair for an hour. Now I’m in the embarrassing situation of needing a ‘comfort break’ rather urgently and thinking it’s going to take me five minutes to un-stiffen enough to get there!
Time for the next diclofenac. Oh no! I’ve left them at home! Mad dash home in the car to get one, and then back to work.
12:00 pm March 2014
Lunch time – get up, stretch a bit, possibly say ‘creak’, which makes my ‘Junior Penguin’ colleagues chuckle, but really I’m quite mobile. Grab a bit of lunch and go for a mile walk – I know it should be longer … and faster … but it’s about what I can manage comfortably in the time I can spare and my knees aren’t right, though much better than they were a few years ago.
Happily no lunch-time tablets any-more – as life-style changes go, this one has had a surprising amount of impact ! I’d really hate to have to go back to trying to remember lunch-time tablets again!
3:00 pm March 2008
Really wondering if I can last until five. If I was on my own I’d be out of here – but I’ve got an employee now and I feel I should set a good example so I stay.
3:00 pm March 2014
Wow – I love this job – time for a bit of a coffee break and then back to some really interesting transcription about language usage … followed, for a bit of a change, by some transcription about sheep diseases! Variety – that’s what I love!
5:00 pm March 2008
‘I’m tired and I wanna go home’ but we’re really busy and I’ve promised someone to get some work back to them this week – I’d better stay a bit longer, even though I feel soooooo tired and achy!
5:00 pm March 2014
I’m outa here – life’s too short! My way of working these days is to delegate or subcontract what I can’t fit in between 8am and 5pm Monday to Friday. I’ve got about 15 hobbies (and one hubby… and friends) and I want time to enjoy them all… especially as, let’s be honest, I don’t know how long I’ll be able to carry on with some of my hobbies, especially those involving a lot of walking or using my hands! I don’t feel negative about it though – things are going well at the moment and I’m making the most of my free time!
6:00 pm March 2008
Still at work.
6:00 pm March 2014
Just leaving a friend’s house. I’ve popped round for a post-work chat and coffee. Feeling pretty fine.
7:30 pm March 2008
Just about manage to get some supper on the table. I only arrived home half an hour ago so it’s ‘oven fish and chips’. 7.5g of methotrexate tonight, with another diclofenac, another hydroxychloroquine and a lansoprazole (stomach settling tablet).
7:30 pm March 2014
We’ve eaten already – I like to eat early and have the evening to play in – especially as I’m usually in bed by 9:00 pm these days – I find an early night makes a huge difference to my general well-being.
Tablets were 17.5g of methotrexate (yeah, it’s gone up a lot but I don’t care – it’s working, and there’s still room for it to go up a bit more … although I do worry sometimes about what happens if/when I’m up to 25g and there’s nowhere else to go because my symptoms are too mild to get anti-TNFs etc. on the NHS!), and another hydroxychloroquine and a lansoprazole.
9:00 pm March 2008
Getting ready for bed – head still buzzing with what’s happening at work, worries about health, worries that I’m not finding time to do the things I love and speak to the people I love, worries, worries, worries. Heaven knows when I’ll get to sleep. Read a book for a bit to try to take my mind of it.
9:00 pm March 2014
In bed sipping a cup of decaf coffee that hubby’s just made me. Feeling satisfied that I’ve done a bit of Spanish ‘homework’ and managed quite a chunk of embroidery and a bit of crochet this evening, while watching an interesting documentary on the telly and discussing it with hubby later in some depth. Reading a good book on my iPad and feeling very relaxed.
10:00 pm March 2008
Oh no – I really don’t feel sleepy. I’ll read some more and try to relax. ‘Come on Penguin – light’s out’ says Hubby. ‘Just another five minutes’ I say, knowing he’ll be asleep in four and I can carry on reading!
10:00 pm March 2014
11:00 pm March 2008
Better put the light out. Toss, turn, toss, turn.
11:00 pm March 2014
1:00 am March 2008
At last … zzzzzzzzzzzz…..
1:00 am March 2014
2:00 am March 2014
Wake up – stiff, in pain, pins and needles – wriggle about until I feel vaguely comfortable, lie awake for 20 minutes and eventually drift off to sleep.
2:00 am March 2014
Wake up – roll over – zzzzzzzzzzz…………….
And so another day starts in the life of Pollyanna Penguin …
Tags: cumulative, cumulative effect, Dr Chris Moore, fibromyalgia, pain, paracetamol, Rheumatoid arthritis, tylanol
I woke up this morning and said to hubby, ‘Yay! Good news! I didn’t need to take any paracetamol last night and I don’t need them this morning either! Isn’t that great.’ He agreed it was great. (He’s nice like that.) 11 am today and I was STILL feeling fine – hurrah, I thought, this dratted flare is finally over. Then, out of the blue, bam, agonising stabbing pains in my ankle. Then the light dawned – oh dear – I bet paracetamol has a cumulative effect.
I’m a bit of an idiot really. I KNEW it had a cumulative effect from the point of view of overdosing, and if has that then it’s likely to have a cumulative effect for pain too I suppose! Feeling a bit silly now!
Anyway, there’s a fascinating article here by Dr Chris More, a fibromyalgia sufferer her/himself (doesn’t specify gender on site, so far as I can see!) Actually, I’ve had a wee browse around the site and I think it’s a great resource for anyone with pain issues, not just fibromyalgia sufferers, so I will be adding it to my blogroll too!
Tags: aches, arthritis, doctor, joint pain, knee, methotrexate, MTX, NHS, nurse, pain, physical therapy, physio, physiotherapy, R.A., RA, rheumatoid, Rheumatoid arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis (RA), sleep, stiffness, tiredness, work
I’ve just been to see my GP about a very painful hip that’s been bothering me for about four weeks now and getting worse rather than better. (There’s little point in going until one is a few weeks into the pain as they just say ‘Come back if it’s not better in a few weeks’ if you do that!) I had been getting rather low thinking that the methotrexate increase wasn’t working – but in the back of mind I was wondering if it was arthritis at all. When I saw my rheumy nurse for the monthly blood test a couple of weeks ago I mentioned the hip pain and said, ‘Honestly, I don’t think it’s arthritis – I have plenty of movement in that hip. I could dance the can-can if I had the legs for it!’
Still, it’s funny how one’s mind can almost split into two on things like this; (well, my mind can, anyway). One part of me was thinking ‘Of course it’s not arthritis’ while the other part was thinking, ‘Doom, gloom, despair! My methotrexate increase hasn’t worked – there aren’t many options open to me if it doesn’t … will I end up in a wheelchair?’
Anyway, I saw the doc today and she confirmed that it’s NOT arthritis (or at least very unlikely to be, anyway) – far too much movement in the hip. She has referred me for physio for a dodgy ligament (technical term, that!) but the chances are, she thinks, that it’ll clear up in another few weeks by itself – so I’ll just cancel the appointment, because that’ll probably take three months to come through anyway!
The hip pain (and associated other pains including referred pain in the knee) has been making my life a misery and continues to do so. I have to limit the driving I do because it’s incredibly painful – it also affects work, but I’m very very happy it’s (almost certainly) not arthritis … though I would like to know what on earth caused the ligament to get upset because I haven’t done anything to it!
Tags: aches, broken bones, doctor, GP, joint pain, NHS, osteoporosis, pain, polymyalgia rheumatica, R.A., rhematoid arthritis, Rheumatoid arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis (RA), rheumatology, rickets, stiffness, sunshine, vitamin D
I’m calling this Vitamin D-tail because it’s vitamin D in detail. I suppose it could have been Vitamin D-tale – the tale of vitamin D, but anyway, after my rambling and vague post about Vitamin D, Eileen in Italy posted a rather long comment, which I suggested we expand into a guest post, and here it is.
Eileen is a graduate of physiology and worked in the NHS before moving abroad. She has polymyalgia rheumatica, and spends a lot of her time making medical stuff comprehensible for other sufferers. As you will see below, she has a knack for this!
Vitamin D – you’ll probably have seen a lot in the media over the last few months. You might even have asked your doctor about it and probably got a dismissive “You get all you need from diet and sun and it isn’t important.” In the words of the song: “that ain’t necessarily so!”
What is Vitamin D?
Vitamin D isn’t really a vitamin – it is something called a pro-hormone and is made in the skin by the action of the sun’s rays on cholesterol and stored in the liver to be used to make a variety of different hormones. It is very important for the way the body uses calcium – without enough vit D you may have a low level of calcium in your blood and, in the long term, you may not build bone properly.
Why do we need it?
The original importance of vit D was seen as preventing rickets in children and it helps prevent osteoporosis in adults. However – that isn’t all: it is now thought that it is involved in many processes in the body and being deficient can give you aches and pains in your muscles and joints and contribute to depression and may be particularly significant in autoimmune disorders. More and more research is suggesting, too, that the amount we need is really much higher than what they have been saying for years.
Where do we get it from?
Many GPs still believe you get vit D from food – in fact you get less than 10% of even the amount they say you need in food. It is found in oily fish, salmon, mackerel, herring, tuna, for example. It is highest in wild fish – and even then you would need half a pound of salmon every day to get what you need – but much lower in farmed fish so you would need more. Tinned tuna in oil has far less than fresh – and the “healthy” version in water has almost none left because of the canning process. Other than that you could have a 17 egg omelette for lunch, or a couple of kilos of mushrooms. When you see in an article that “fortified” foods provide vit D that mainly applies for the USA where milk, orange juice and cereals have vit D added to them. Not so in the UK where margarine is described as fortified – but only so that it has the same amount of vit D as butter! The food with the highest level of vit D is fish oils – maybe great grandma knew something when she got the bottle and spoon out! But you must not rely on cod liver oil – it also has a lot of vitamin A in it and that is dangerous if you take too much.
The main way to get enough is being out in the sun: about 20% of your skin needs to be exposed to the sun between about 11am and 3pm in order to be able to manufacture enough. But there are problems with this in the modern world and living in northern climes. The skin factory is most efficient at the age of 20, from then on it starts to slow down gradually anyway until at age 70 it is at less than 25% capacity. As you get older, you wear more clothes and spend more time indoors during the middle of the day doing boring things like work, looking at that lovely sunshine through the window – which blocks the essential wavelengths of light. When you do go out you use sunscreen – many foundations now contain Factor 15 and even Factor 8 sunscreen reduces the amount made by over 90%. And we have had it drummed into us that we shouldn’t go out in the midday sun and always “slip, slap, slop”. Anyone living north of Turin in northern Italy is so far from the equator that between October and May they won’t make enough vit D from the sun – the sun’s rays have to strike your skin at a high angle to flick the switch to turn the machine on, once your shadow is longer than you are tall – the sun isn’t strong enough. The further you are north, the less you make. So that means that you have to store it up between May and September – and then you get a summer like last year! In children, all this is added to by the fear of letting children out to play and their desire to play on computers rather than on the swings. And if you have dark skin or a suntan – your skin factory takes even longer to make vit D.
What are the issues if we don’t get enough?
I live in northern Italy, just slightly north of the level of Turin, and it is reckoned by our local osteoporosis expert that even here more than 80% of the population (both men and women) are vit D deficient and that increases a lot of risks as they age. Obviously most people know about osteoporosis and resultant broken bones – but fewer know about its role in muscle health. Severe deficiency can lead to similar stiffness and aches to those that many people with arthritises are familiar with. A few weeks of very high doses may improve that dramatically. It is something that should always be checked to rule it out with regard to one particular arthritis, polymyalgia rheumatica, as the symptoms are so similar. There’s nothing to say you aren’t suffering from both, but improving your vit D status rules out one cause. As we age we tend to fall more (another factor increasing your fracture risk) and studies have shown that improving vit D levels reduces the number of falls and broken bones the elderly have as well as improving their balance in general, walking and ability to get up from chairs unaided. In fact, it is thought that simply making sure residents in homes are drinking plenty and improving their vit D would prevent a large proportion of the falls that are so common and can lead to hospitalisation.
Getting a test
A request to your GP to check your vit D level is often met with some degree of scorn but anyone with an autoimmune disease should have it checked because low vit D and autoimmune disease are associated but it isn’t known whether it is cause or effect – and everyone who is told to take “bone protection” medications (bisphosphonates or alendronic acid) should also have their vit D and calcium levels checked first because they don’t work if you are low on either and they can reduce your calcium levels even further and make you ill. It is stated in the drug information by the manufacturers – some doctors tend to think they know better. Someone I know was allowed to have her vit D checked with a very patronising attitude by the GP: “It’s very expensive you know, about £200”. It isn’t, it costs about £25 and, as a last resort, a hospital in the Midlands offers it to anyone by post as well as to NHS hospitals!
What do you do once you know what your vit D level is?
The level at which you are said to be deficient varies from one NHS Trust to another. As an example, however, Gateshead Trust in the northeast of England recommends a range of 48 -144 nmol/litre as being adequate. Below 25 they say it should be treated with high dose vit D3 – and by high dose they mean 60,000 IU a week for 12 weeks! That, of course, needs to be done under medical supervision although if you are very deficient the likelihood of adverse effects is not very high. Between 25 and 50 they recommend supplements of 1,000-2,000 IU a day for 12 weeks, and it is easy and relatively cheap to obtain tablets for that sort of dose from Boots or Holland&Barrett. Once you are what they describe as “replete” you should continue with 800-1,000 IU/day, especially in the winter but also if you are not getting out into the sun much. Even with supplements some people find their vit D level falls quite rapidly so having your vit D checked every year or if any symptoms that disappeared with being given vit D return may be a good idea.
Be careful though: if you are on the standard “calcichew” supplements given to you if you take prednisolone, do not just take extra tablets to increase your vit D intake (whatever your doctor suggests). Taking calcium and vit D supplements together can sometimes cause kidney stones or “grit” which can irritate your bladder. You need some extra calcium because of taking prednisolone (it makes you lose more in your urine) but too much is not a good thing. If you need more vit D than the 800 IU in two tablets then buy pure vit D tablets and take both. You should not take more than 4,000 IU of vit D a day unless your doctor tells you to but 2,000 IU is a perfectly safe dose for most adults.
And if you want to top up your vit D the skin way: it is safe to stay in the sun with no sunscreen for about 10 minutes, or the time it takes to start to get a tiny bit pink and warm and Cancer UK has issued some guidelines for safe sun exposure rather than the previous “don’t go out in the sun” mantra. Low vit D has also been associated with depressive mood and with SAD (seasonal affective disorder) but going out in the sun for a walk will achieve a lot in terms of making you feel better. All the UK needs now is some sun!
A few references:
http://pain-topics.org/pdf/vitamind-report.pdf Pain relief through vitamin D