The chronic pain experienced by fibromyalgia sufferers may see significant reduction thanks to the regular introduction of a vitamin D supplement, a new study finds.

A team of Austrian scientists sought to better understand the role a prehormone, called calcifediol, plays in forming vitamin D levels in the blood. Prior research has consistently shown that fibromyalgia patients, in particular those who suffer chronic pain, tend to have low calcifediol levels. As the substance gets converted into calcitriol — the active form of vitamin D — the team hypothesized that introducing the supplement to these patients would greatly reduce their discomfort in the same way as increased prehormone levels.

Fibromyalgia syndrome (FMS) is characterized by long-term, widespread pain throughout the body. Scientists haven’t fully tied down the condition’s etiology, though they believe it arises from a miscommunication between nerves and the brain, leading to intensified, shooting pains. People with FMS experience morning stiffness, sleeping problems, cloudy memory or thought process, and, among women (the gender most likely to suffer from the condition) painful menstrual periods. Roughly five million American adults suffer from FMS, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In a randomized trial, 30 women with FMS and low levels of calcifediol were either given a cholecalciferol supplement (the enzyme in the liver that produces calcifediol) or a placebo for a period of 20 weeks. Researchers measured the prehormone’s levels at five weeks and again at 13 weeks. At 25 weeks following the start of supplementation, the team measured a third time — then a fourth and final time 24 weeks after supplementation had completely ceased, in order to track the long-term effects.

The last measure was striking. Twenty-four weeks after women stopped taking the vitamin D supplement they still reported a substantial decrease in their perception of pain. During the treatment period itself, they showed greater physical role functioning and decreased morning fatigue. Anxiety and depression levels, however, remained unchanged — reflecting the limits of inexpensive pharmacological treatment. Still, the researchers were pleased to see positive results.

"We believe that the data presented in the present study are promising,” said lead investigator Dr. Florian Wepner in a statement. “FMS is a very extensive symptom complex that cannot be explained by a vitamin D deficiency alone.”

Until recently, in fact, many believed the condition was purely psychosomatic. People who reported FMS symptoms were routinely met with a shrugged shoulder or a suggestion to “Take your mind off it.” But last year a study showed that FMS pain is experienced in the actual nerves beneath the skin’s surface, not simply in the chemical imbalance between your ears. Now, while vitamin D may not be the panacea scientists have been hoping for in ripping the veil of the painful condition, it does provide proven relief.

“Vitamin D supplementation may be regarded as a relatively safe and economical treatment for FMS patients and an extremely cost-effective alternative or adjunct to expensive pharmacological treatment as well as physical, behavioral, and multimodal therapies," remarked Wepner. "Vitamin D levels should be monitored regularly in FMS patients, especially in the winter season, and raised appropriately."

Source: Wepner F, Scheuer R, Weiser B. Effects of vitamin D on patients with fibromyalgia syndrome: A randomized placebo-controlled trial. Pain. 2014.