The next time you watch a Florida Panthers game, take a minute from the action on ice to look at the seats behind the bench. There you may see the team’s doctors Gautam Yagnik and David Westerdahl.
When they aren’t out on the ice with an injured player or sewing sutures in the back room, they get to watch the action.
In their positions with the Panthers, as well as in their regular practices — Dr. Yagnik is chief of orthopedic surgery at Baptist Hospital and Dr. Westerdahl is a sports physician in the department of orthopedics at Cleveland Clinic Florida — they see many muscle strains and bone fractures.
And over the years, they’ve learned that some of these don’t heal well and are easily damaged again. Up until recently, doctors in the field weren’t sure why. Today, they believe the problems may be related to low levels of vitamin D.
After all, studies show that 40 to 50 percent of our young athletes are vitamin D deficient, says Yagnik.
“And you see it on the other end of life when elderly patients are institutionalized,” he adds. “It’s estimated that one billion people worldwide are low in this important nutrient.’’
Although there is some controversy over what constitutes low as well as normal blood levels of vitamin D, a simple test can help determine how much of the major circulating form of the vitamin, 25-hydroxy vitamin D, is in your blood.
“Five years ago if you went to a sports medicine meeting you wouldn’t hear anything about vitamin D. But recently there’s been a lot of attention on how it relates to muscle and bone health and healing,” Yagnik says.
In the body, vitamin D helps maintain muscle strength and perhaps muscle mass and function. It also helps regulate calcium and phosphate levels that play a role in bone formation as well as bone density and bone healing.
“The whole story about vitamin D is fascinating,” says Gary Kiebzak, Ph.D., a clinical research administrator for UHZ Sports Medicine Institute at Doctors Hospital, Baptist Health South Florida, in Coral Gables.
He describes a case in which surgeons treated a 22-year-old man who played football for Florida International University. He had jumped and broken a small bone in his foot. As a common practice to help healing and bone formation, a screw was inserted and after four months, he was literally back on his feet.
That’s until he played in his first practice scrimmage since his original injury and felt foot pain once again. The doctors soon confirmed he had refractured the same bone.
They did what they could for him and after four months, he was back in the game. However, after just one month of playing, he had fractured the bone for a third time.
That’s when a metabolic workup was done and it was discovered he was vitamin D deficient. “No other laboratory values for his blood were outside the normal range, and the patient was otherwise healthy,” Kiebzak says.
Although a causal relationship was not established, the fact that correcting the vitamin deficiency and bone healing happened at the same time is compelling. “It suggests a role for vitamin D in fracture repair,” Kiebzak says.
It took only about four weeks on mega doses of vitamin D for his blood levels to improve and for the athlete to play again. And on follow up a year and a half later, he was still doing fine. The vitamin D seemed to have done the trick.