When I experienced unexplained pins and needles and weakness in all my limbs, I began to panic.
About a week later, I went to the doctor and found out I was severely deficient in vitamin B12.
This is what a B12 deficiency can look like, plus treatment, as well as how I feel today.
On a Wednesday morning in May, I went for my usual run through lower Manhattan. I enjoyed the windy weather, ate my usual meals and went to work. Then, as I was settling in for the night, something unusual happened.
I was lying on my right side in bed when pins and needles radiated down my left arm. I wasn’t putting pressure on my left arm, so why was it numb? I shook it and contorted my body, trying to stretch my member to get rid of the feeling, but I felt no relief.
Then my left hand went numb. After 30 minutes of panicking, I convinced myself it was all in my head and finally fell asleep. When I woke up in the morning, the same tingling sensation had spread to both arms, hands, legs and feet. I was very freaked out.
I panicked and searched for answers
I hobbled to a nearby emergency room, where the doctor told me the tingling could be explained by a viral infection, although she didn’t run any tests or give me a prescription. I left feeling even more desperate than when I’d stumbled upon it, and more tickled.
With no change in my symptoms, I saw my internist, who quickly ran an extensive panel of blood work. While waiting five days for results, I became so weak it was debilitating; I couldn’t even get around to my blog.
Finally, the panel came back: I was severely deficient in vitamin B12.
What it’s like to have a severe vitamin B12 deficiency
According to Dr. Edwin Serrano, a neurology resident at MedStar University Hospital in Georgetown, B12 levels of about 300 picograms per milliliter are considered normal and below 200 pg/ml is considered low. Mine was around 175 pg/ml. My numbers probably didn’t drop that low overnight.
“Symptoms typically occur after vitamin B12 deficiency has gone untreated for years,” said Dr. Brad Kamitaki, assistant professor of neurology at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.
Many people are initially asymptomatic. He added that B12 deficiency “may be undiagnosed or underdiagnosed, as symptoms can be nonspecific,” such as cognitive slowing, fatigue, swelling of the tongue, tingling in the arms or legs, and difficulty walking.
B12 deficiency usually has two causes: malabsorption or inadequate intake. Certain conditions, such as atrophic gastritis or celiac disease, can block B12 absorption, while vegan and vegetarian diets can lead to insufficient intake, as animal products are the main source of B12.
The symptoms did not go away immediately after I started the treatment
At least the treatment sounded easy: vitamin B12 injections for a month, then daily supplements. I thought my symptoms would go away after a week of shots, I was wrong. It takes a while for your body to replenish its vitamin B12, Serrano said: “If there are neurological symptoms, those can last anywhere from three months to a year.”
This was the case for me. Although I was receiving treatment, my symptoms got worse before they got better, and the way my symptoms affected my life cannot be overstated. Numbness in the legs persisted. I also found myself starving and regularly skipping meals. My brain fog was overwhelming. The headaches became so unbearable that I could no longer sleep. My vision became blurry. Alarmed, my doctor thought the last two symptoms warranted a brain MRI to rule out a tumor or multiple sclerosis; later a neurologist told me that B12 deficiency explained both.
It’s important to note that some people may be more at risk for vitamin B12 deficiency than others, including those who follow plant-based diets, Kamitaki said.
“I would also like people to be aware that adequate vitamin B12 intake is essential during pregnancy and if exclusively breastfeeding, as the effects of vitamin B12 deficiency on the developing fetus and baby they can be significant,” Kamitaki said.
Serrano added that older populations were also at higher risk, as cases of B12 deficiency increase with age.
I was very lucky to have acted as quickly as I did. Serrano said if symptoms go untreated, it could cause “irreversible damage” to the nervous system and lead to the inability to walk normally, permanent muscle tension and loss of motor function in the legs. He added that untreated symptoms could alter the ability to produce red blood cells, which increases the risk of heart failure and may even increase a person’s risk of dementia.
Almost five months after my initial panic in May, my symptoms are virtually gone. My strength and energy is back, my brain fog has lifted, my numbness has subsided and I am able to run again in the morning.
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