04/13/2012 11:46 am ET Updated Jun 13, 2012

Painkiller From the Sky? Sunshine Vitamin May Help Older People With Chronic Pain

Is vitamin D an action hero painkiller? It sounds silly -- pain old vitamin D as a possible reliever of pain. We know vitamin D as the Clark Kent of supplements, found in ordinary grocery stores, easily available from sunlight, available in fortified foods, egg yolks and fish, good for bones, but certainly not as a super hero painkiller.

However, if you have generalized muscle and bone pain, you will want to know what was uncovered by researchers at the Mayo Clinic: People with low vitamin D levels take nearly twice as much narcotic medication for pain as people whose vitamin D levels are normal. So far it's just a correlation between the level of meds people require and their vitamin D levels, not a proven cause and effect.

But if groups of people who are low on D require almost twice as much morphine, fentanyl or oxycodone as those with a good D level, maybe they are in twice as much pain because they have half as much of what might turn out to be a natural pain preventer or reliever. That's the theory that has grabbed the attention of medical investigators.

One of them, Dr. Michael Turner, the lead physician of the Mayo study, says:

"Vitamin D is known to promote both bone and muscle strength. Conversely, deficiency is an under-recognized source of diffuse pain and impaired neuromuscular functioning. By recognizing it, physicians can significantly improve their patient's life."

Body Fat Steals Your D

Dr. Turner adds that people who are overweight are prone to have pain caused by low vitamin D because vitamin D likes to reside in fat. So when any of us have inviting layers of fat, the vitamin takes up residence in Fat City rather than circulating throughout the body the way it's supposed to, bathing muscles and bones in a nice D bath. Dr. Turner also adds that checking D levels requires just a simple blood test that can be ordered by your doctor. (To see Dr. Turner on YouTube, use search terms: Mayo Pain Turner.)

Can Low D Happen to You?

Yes, especially if you are older. Scientists say that about 50 to 60 percent of older people in North America do not have satisfactory vitamin D levels. Articles in The New England Journal of Medicine, The Journal of the American Medical Association and other reputable sources state that many adults are deficient in Vitamin D. Why? We older people are not outdoors as much as we were when young. We are office-bound or at home cocooning. And fearing skin cancer or wrinkles, when outside we cover up and use sunscreen, so the sun can't get through to work its D magic on the skin.

Dermatologists, naturally invested in preventing skin cancer and wrinkles, say we can get all the D we need through supplements, but there are other experts who advise also getting a little sunshine, not only for pain, but for depression and other ills. Dr. Christiane Northrup, women's menopause health guru, recommends daily brief exposure to the sun. Her specific recommendations -- the dos and don'ts of safe solar exposure -- can be found at Now, however you decide to obtain vitamin D, you should know the current optimum level. The National Institutes of Health recommend that women age 51 to 70 get 600 IU's a day.

Bottom line? Though experts currently have differing opinions about sun exposure, one thing is clear and can be acted upon today: If you have unexplained or unrelieved muscle or bone pain, you may want to talk to your doc about testing your vitamin D level.

If vitamin D works to treat your pain, great -- then Clark Kent has turned into Superman. And if it doesn't take away the pain, at least you won't have rickets.

Mel Walsh is a gerontologist, author and columnist. Her book, HOT GRANNY, is available at Amazon. Visit Mel at

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