by Hara Estroff Marano It’s no secret that B vitamins are nutritionally important -- they’re necessary to process certain amino acids and manufacture red blood cells. Study after study has shown them to be power healers, preventing maladies from heart attacks to certain birth defects. Now add chronic pain treatment to the list of the B vitamins’ healing powers. A recent study out of Texas showed that a combination of B vitamins brings relief to chronic back pain in as little as 30 minutes. “We found an immediate [pain relieving] effect not reported previously,” said Xuejun Song, M.D., Ph. D., associate director of basic science research at Parker College Research Institute in Dallas. “This is very important and if it’s true, anybody can use the vitamins to relieve pain.” No prescription needed. Doctors have used B vitamins clinically to treat various painful conditions such as lumbago, sciatica and facial paralysis, but previous research had not clearly shown that B vitamins were effective in relieving chronic neuropathic pain, pain generated not from some physical cause, but by the nerves themselves. It’s pain that often does not easily go away. Neuropathic pain (from the Greek neuro, meaning nerves, and pathy, meaning abnormality) affects some 86 million Americans a year and causes businesses about $90 million in losses to sick time. The body feels pain, whether acute or chronic, when special nerve endings, called nociceptors, sense something wrong. These nociceptors, located throughout the body, use nerve impulses to send messages to other nerves, which move the messages on to the spinal cord and the brain at lightning speed. Chronic pain occurs when the nerve fibers themselves are damaged or injured and start sending incorrect signals to other pain centers in the body. It lasts beyond the typical healing time and can be the result of diseases like diabetes and shingles, or trauma or surgery -- or no identifiable cause at all. Anticonvulsant and antidepressant drugs and various pain relievers are effective in mitigating some cases of chronic pain, but doctors are often puzzled as to how to bring relief to others. Dr. Song originally set out to determine whether B vitamins provided long term protection to nerve injuries. He replicated the human condition of chronic low back by inserting a steel rod at the base of lab rats’ spinal cords, compressing the lumbar nerve. He then injected the rats with vitamin B1 (thiamin), B6 (pyridoxine), B12 (cyanocobalamin) and a combination of the three. Song expected to see pain reduction within weeks or months. Instead he got a pleasant surprise: the vitamins reduced the severity of the rats’ pain within 30-60 minutes and the effects lasted 6-12 hours. Each B vitamin worked individually to reduce the pain, but the combination of the three was the most effective. And the longer the animals took their B vitamins, the shorter their pain lasted. B vitamins might work so effectively to reduce chronic pain by inhibiting a key signaling pathway inside nerve cells that works biochemically to make them long-term hyperexcitable. “When you have a fever you take medication. That medication activates something in the body that relieves the pain -- not the drug itself,” Dr. Song said. “The B vitamins’ inhibition of the pain is mediated by this pathway.” Daily doses of vitamin B are usually around 1 mg., but pain may up the requirement. Based on his experiments, Dr. Song estimates that doses around 200-500 mg would be necessary to achieve the pain-reducing effect in humans. Unlike high doses of painkillers, however, high doses of B vitamins have no negative side effects.