Disclaimer: I have no medical training whatsoever. I’m sharing my story to raise awareness of vitamin D deficiency with the hope it helps someone struggling with mysterious symptoms like I did. It’s also important to note that, although it is rare, it is possible to have too much vitamin D in your system; please consult your physician before making any assumptions or changes to your health regimen.
I woke up one frosty morning last winter with what felt like the lingering effects of a nightmare; I couldn’t feel my right arm or leg below the elbow and knee. At first, I assumed I’d just slept in an awkward position, but it wasn’t the tingling kind of numbness you get when your arm or leg falls asleep.
No pins and needles.
When I didn’t regain feeling after I’d gotten up and started moving a bit, I reached for the phone with my good hand and dialed the nurse practitioner’s line for guidance, doing my best to remain calm in front of my little ones.
After asking a series of questions, she advised me to come in right away.
By the time we made it out the door, I had some sensation in both extremities, but my hand and foot were strangely weak. I could barely grip my steering wheel as I made the 10-minute drive to the hospital.
Thirty minutes later, I was sitting on a table covered with crinkly butcher paper waiting for my primary care physician.
As I watched the seconds tick by on the clock, I thought about the last time I’d sat in this same spot, which had only been a few weeks before.
That day, I’d been seen by a different doctor for debilitating headaches.
I’d only experienced true migraines during one brief season of my life, when I was struggling with high blood pressure while expecting my second child. The pain I’d been experiencing recently had managed to top that, and I was understandably concerned.
I was also experiencing what the physician had called “ice pick headaches.” An almost-electric, stabbing pain on the right side of my head; always the right side. They would strike like lightning, and leave me reeling at random moments, like while I was standing at the stove cooking dinner.
In addition to the severe headaches, I was also seeing spots in my left eye. I think that was most disturbing of all my symptoms. It made me feel like I was going crazy.
At one point, I wondered if I’d had a stroke.
The doctor had requested blood to be drawn to rule out pregnancy that day. I hadn’t expected to be disappointed when it came back negative, but I was. Together, we attributed the headaches and vision disturbances to a lack of sleep, spending too much time on my computer at work, and drinking an excessive amount of caffeine. He’d written me a prescription for pain medicine to take the edge off, referred me to an ophthalmologist for an eye evaluation, and I vowed to hydrate regularly and go to bed earlier.
Nearly three weeks later, I realized the headaches had gotten worse. In fact, I’d come to expect them three or four nights per week, always in a row, at the same time every day. The prescribed pain medicine wouldn’t even dull the throbbing, so I’d ended up putting them on a shelf to collect dust. When the pulsing ache took over, I would swallow my guilt, put the boys in front of the TV, pull the covers over my head, and lie there until my head stopped pounding and the nausea subsided. It was miserable.
Since then, I’d seen the eye doctor, and he’d diagnosed me with ocular migraines, something I’d never even heard of before.
And now this. This bizarre numbness.
Don’t panic, Courtney.
When my PCP arrived to evaluate me, all of the mysterious symptoms I’d been experiencing rattled out of me.
Afterward, she quietly performed her assessment.
As she stood back to address me, the look on her face disturbed me.
“I don’t want to scare you, but you have classic MS symptoms,”
I heard every word she said after that, but I wasn’t listening. My head was spinning as I considered the possibility of having the progressive disease.
What it would mean for my family.
After that, I did what every good Millennial would do; I went home and Googled Multiple Sclerosis symptoms… then the tears came in a flood, because she was right.
For four months, I went through a series of testing. Multiple middle-of-the-night MRIs and eye scans to check for scarring and inflammation. Stress evaluations and a full panel of blood work.
During this time, three discoveries were made about my health.
We’d gone out to dinner at a local restaurant with friends when I received the first call from my doctor. My heart skipped a beat as I looked down at my phone; it was 7 p.m. on a Friday night.
This could be bad, I thought.
I braced myself as I left the dining room to find a quiet spot outside so I could speak to my doctor and cry if I had to in privacy.
What she had to say surprised me.
“Your blood work came back, and your vitamin D levels are dangerously low. I’m putting in a prescription now, and I want you to go and pick it up right away.”
My first thought? How can a vitamin D deficiency be dangerous?
“That’s it,” she said. “I’ll let you know when I found out more.”
Winters in Germany are dark. From mid October to the end of April, the sun rises late and sets early. The faint glow barely makes it to the treetops before slipping back down below the horizon again (when heavy clouds aren’t covering it entirely, that is).
Having grown up and spent all of my husband’s military career bouncing around Texas, my system was used to year-round sunshine. When we arrived in Europe, my flip-flop tan lines faded quickly, and it wasn’t long before I traded in my shorts for jeans and leggings.
As I researched vitamin D, it became apparent scientists are only just now beginning to understand its relationship with the human body. Did you know it isn’t simply a vitamin you consume or absorb through your skin?
What is vitamin D?
According to Hormone Health Network:
“Vitamin D is a hormone the kidneys produce that controls blood calcium concentration and impacts the immune system… Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to a variety of health concerns, which points to a wide range of vitamin D functions, although research is still underway into why the hormone impacts other systems of the body. For instance, too little vitamin D makes an individual more prone to infections and illness, cardiovascular disease, and mental illnesses — including mood disorders like depression (continue reading at http://www.hormone.org).”
Vitamin D deficiency, EBV and MS
The week after I began taking a high dosage vitamin D3 supplement, I received my second diagnosis. My blood work showed I appeared to have an active Epstein-Barr infection, which is the virus that causes mononucleosis. I was immediately taken back to sixth grade, when I’d had mono so severely I’d ended up completing the entire spring semester at home. It was not a fun time for me or my parents; gossip spreads like wildfire in small East Texas towns.
A year later, tests showed the virus was still active in my preteen system, but most of the symptoms had disappeared, so I went on with my life and all but forgot about it until it all came flooding back to me with my new diagnosis more than 20 years later.
Considering my history with the virus and recent blood work, my PCP concluded it’s likely I have chronic EBV.
I also learned scientists are exploring a possible link between vitamin D deficiency and Epstein-Barr that triggers MS. Read more about it on Medscape, ProHealth and Web MD.
At this point, I was understandably shaken. As I waited to hear the results of my MRI’s, I was absolutely expecting an official MS diagnosis, and I was prepared to say “it is well with my soul.”
Instead, the only abnormality that showed up on my scans was a mild case of degenerative disc disease in my neck and upper back, which is not at all uncommon. I was referred to a chiropractor for adjusting, and that was that.
By this point, I’d already been on a high dosage of vitamin D for over a month, and my symptoms had slowly began to fade away. I was beginning to feel like myself again, and the next time I went to see my primary care physician, she told me I looked like a completely different person.
The truth is, I felt like a completely different person.
I never would’ve guessed I was vitamin deficient, but now that I know the difference, it’s incredible. It wasn’t just the numbness, headaches, and vision disturbances that went away; the fog I’d become accustomed to living in that I’d attributed to being an overly-exhausted mom of little ones went away. My typical mid-day crash came less frequently, I experienced fewer bouts of anxiety and depression, less-frequent mood swings, and I had more energy throughout the day.
After six weeks of supplements, I had a second blood draw, and my levels came back normal. Since I was feeling 1000% better, my PCP and I agreed to stop testing until we had a reason to start back up again.
I’m pretty sure I clicked my heels in the air as I left the hospital that day.
Could I still have MS?
It’s possible, but as the days go by, I am more and more confident that I don’t. More than year later, my PCP hasn’t been able to rule MS out completely, BUT she hasn’t been able to officially diagnose me with it either.
I am encouraged by the fact that my symptoms have completely disappeared since my vitamin D levels are now in a normal range, and they have seen other deficient patients with similar symptoms since I baffled my primary care physician last winter.
Taking a daily vitamin D3 supplement is the only thing about my lifestyle that has changed long-term since I woke up with zero feeling in my arm and leg that cold morning.
Here in Germany, it’s been a particularly tough winter (I’ve heard rumors it’s the darkest one our area has had since the 1950’s). I’ve begun to react to seeing the sun like I used to celebrate rare North Texas snow falls, and I’ve been paying particularly close attention to my health over the last couple of months. Since we’re heading to a duty station that is known for it’s gray, rainy days, I see this being a continuous battle for me.
Now, I encourage you to consider your health.
How have you been feeling this winter?
If you’ve been experiencing anything out of the ordinary, reach out to your PCP to talk about your concerns. With all you do to take care of your family, it’s important that you take a moment to take care of YOU, too.
Disclaimer: I have no medical training whatsoever. I’m sharing my story to raise awareness of vitamin D deficiency with the hope that it helps someone struggling with mysterious symptoms like I did. It’s also important to note that, although it is rare, it is possible to have too much vitamin D in your system; please consult your physician before making any assumptions or changes to your diet.