How are you feeling? Are your symptoms improving? Do you need more frequent B12 injections……? These questions are very rarely asked of B12 deficient patients regarding their treatment. Too many patients remain ‘seen’ but not heard. Never heard.
Why has the medical establishment become so averse to listening to B12 deficient patients? To treating symptoms and to acknowledging this fundamental nutritional requirement? Why are we not offered the same listening ear as those with other conditions might be?
The patient is ALWAYS the expert on how they are feeling, not some serum B12 level or any maintenance guidelines which bear no relationship to the patient experience.
Loss of a great relationship
Any visit to the doctors can be an ordeal. You may be feeling, vulnerable, tearful, in pain, stressed, anxious and not wanting to waste the doctor’s time. But, the incredibly healing benefit of just ten minutes of really being heard, experiencing kindness and compassion and having a plan of action, is profound. We leave knowing our doctor is trying to help us. That ten minutes being reassured and cared for creates a phenomenal level of trust.
B12 deficient patients, in many cases, experience a completely different relationship with their doctor when requesting an increased frequency of B12 injections, finding that a couple of weeks after their injection their debilitating symptoms are back with a vengeance.
The very same Doctor who helped them through rough times, cared for them through pregnancy or trauma can become distant, defensive, unfeeling and even angry. It’s as if an invisible wall is built, eye contact is limited, and communication is almost strangulated. The usual empathy may be replaced by flippant, incorrect comments about B12 being a placebo, that B12 deficiency is ‘over diagnosed’ that people want too much, get addicted to it and that there is no evidence to suggest that it actually makes a difference!
There’s an inability on the part of some GP’s to demonstrate compassion or understanding for a patient who is struggling to function on three monthly injections. The current situation means that some patients are able to function for only 8 weeks out of 52. Many GP’s are refusing to treat symptoms, whilst concern with B12 serum blood levels takes precedence over common sense. Ignoring how the patient feels can lead to feelings of confusion, anger, desperation, and fear. What are they supposed to do?
Patient’s who are in pain, exhausted and confused need more B12, not less – but this fact is not understood by those who should be caring for us.
This ‘new’ attitude from the GP may cause fractures in, or even a complete death of their previous good relationship. For those patients who feel they’ve upset their doctor by asking for more B12 or who fail to articulate what they need it may mean that they will try to struggle on alone. This is a shocking and intolerable situation for a patient who previously had an excellent relationship with someone they completely trusted to care for them.
What usually happens in the UK ….
In the main GPs prescribe loading doses (6 injections over two weeks) and then automatically place patients onto three monthly injection regime regardless of the severity of their symptoms. This is very often done without discussion with the patient – in fact without any kind of consultation whatsoever. It might be a nurse who delivers this information and who sticks rigidly to the exact date three months later for the next injection. It is not uncommon for patients who try to have their injection a couple of days early only to be turned away distraught.
This situation can leave the patient bewildered about why their inexpensive injections are rationed, knowing their lack can cause widespread, permanent damage. This condition is so simple and easy to treat but B12 is withheld due to lack of education.
Patients restricted to 3 monthly injections are commonly offered strong painkillers, Gabapentin, amitriptyline, and other antidepressants, all manner of symptom modifying drugs in place of the vitamin needed to repair their nerves. There’s something seriously wrong when a GP insists on exploring dementia in a symptomatic patient in their 40’s, rather than treating a B12 level which is just within range.
Retesting serum levels
Once a patient is being treated with B12 injections, it does make sense to check the serum B12 level in the beginning to confirm that the patient is responding to treatment. If there is a good response then no further testing is required. Continual retesting of serum levels prior to an injection (and in some cases just a few days after) is a total waste of time and money and it’s clear that some GP’s are mistakenly using a ‘within range’ result as a reason to stop B12 injections.
The sole reliance on B12 serum levels to decide whether a patient is well or not is entirely illogical given that many patients with a B12 level up in the 1000’s may still be experiencing incredibly painful and debilitating symptoms. They may be suffering from a failing memory, an inability to walk, to stay awake and terrible anxiety.
A high serum B12 level post injection is not showing any toxicity, it is also no indication of the level of nerve repair but repeatedly patients are told:
‘your levels are too high’,
‘we need to stop your injections until they come back down’
‘you no longer need B12……..’
There is a genetic problem which is thankfully highlighted by the NHS – ‘functional B12 deficiency,’ it would be helpful if our GP’s were all made aware of this;
‘Some people can experience problems related to a vitamin B12 deficiency, despite appearing to have normal levels of vitamin B12 in their blood. This can occur due to a problem known as functional vitamin B12 deficiency – where there is a problem with the proteins that help transport vitamin B12 between cells. This results in neurological complications involving the spinal cord’.
B12 is a water-soluble vitamin, the vast majority of the injection is excreted via the bowel and bladder within 24 hours. B12 has to be replaced frequently in order to aid recovery of the myelin sheath. Serum levels can remain high for up to four months, this does not mean there is an accessible reservoir of B12 sloshing around the body.
If your GP or nurse continually suggest retesting your B12 levels, ask why? And feel free to refuse unless there is any clinical need. You will be saving your blood and your time and that of your practice too.
• A very high serum B12 level without any supplementation obviously requires investigation and I often wonder if this is where our GP’s are getting mixed up?
Superior treatment for other conditions, a stark contrast
If you are a diabetic patient, the overwhelming difference in the level of care is plain to see. You will be checked, monitored, consulted. You’ll have regular retinopathy and foot checks. You may be assigned a specialist diabetic nurse and you will be asked how you feel.
You will not have restricted medication, you will be taught and trusted to self inject, and you may even be sent on courses to learn about your condition.
In stark contrast, the majority of B12 deficient patients are discriminated against whilst requiring exactly the same care. All clinicians need to grasp the fact that B12 deficiency is a real and serious condition.
One size treatment cannot possibly fit all
As many of us know and feel keenly, four injections per year cannot correct the body’s starvation of B12, just as only four buckets of water a year wouldn’t help a tree in drought and only four breaths of air wouldn’t help a deep sea diver. One size cannot possibly fit all for many medical treatments.
Reports of widespread pain, poor memory, poor mental health, balance problems, deafening tinnitus, fatigue, and incontinence are totally ignored as if the patient is totally mistaken about the state of their own health. If they happen to have existing diagnoses of fibromyalgia, depression, CFS, diabetes (etc) or they’re menopausal or even a new mum – their symptoms may be attributed to these conditions instead of being recognised as under treatment of B12 deficiency.
Bizarre letters stop B12 treatment
You can see the situation which affects so many patients from this letter below. These letters which stop vital B12 treatment, are randomly sent out and are expected to be met with compliance despite the fact that without any solid evidence or consultation, it has been decided the patient can miraculously absorb and utilise B12.
The statement “Evidence has come to light that in many cases B12 injections are given too easily, or are inadvertently continued after the loading dose injections.” is ludicrous.
I hope that recipients of these letters ask to see the source of this ‘evidence’ and I wonder what it is. The idea that B12 injections are ‘given too easily’ is a bizarre comment given that so many patients probably feel that completing the Krypton Factor, running ten miles through quicksand whilst wearing high heels two sizes too small, might be an easier challenge than ‘qualifying’ for an essential vitamin injection.
There may be some odd formula for sending out these letters – there is no clue as to why this practice have decided the patients can now absorb B12, what test they used. Perhaps a mistaken reliance upon post injection serum B12 levels to determine that patients have enough B12 and are now ‘cured’ – perhaps even picking names out of a hat?
They state “we need to prove that people cannot absorb the carrier across the stomach membrane.” The sentence itself doesn’t make sense. What is the ‘carrier’? Do they really believe that by simply telling the patient “You are one of a cohort of patients who have been tested and should be able to absorb B12” the job is done? They are placing the onus on the patient to prove they can’t absorb B12 without any discussion whatsoever.
There seems to be a movement towards only treating patients who are confirmed to have pernicious anaemia, (this may be what this letter is about). This is totally ridiculous given the many causes for B12 deficiency. Each is serious and each requires treatment by injection unless the deficiency is of proven dietary lack. The reality is that the test for pernicious anaemia (Intrinsic Factor antibody) has low sensitivity resulting in many false negatives. This information escapes too many GP’s.
The sad fact is that some who receive these letters will believe what is written – or may not have the strength to fight for their health.
Deterioration caused by B12 deficiency is slow and insidious, it takes a while to repair the fatty coating of the nerves (myelin sheath). Six injections over two weeks cannot possibly reverse all the damage in every patient even though we all wish they could.
Me and millions of others would be ecstatic to find that suddenly we really could absorb B12 simply because we received a letter saying so – but this letter and all the others like it are complete poppycock, not to mention harmful. As usual in B12 deficiency, the PATIENT IS NEVER CONSULTED, everything is decided without their input.
Oral supplementation for patients who cannot absorb B12 from food would be a futile exercise. We urgently need our clinicians to understand that this can lead to permanent neurological damage, raising serum levels but allowing deterioration to continue.
This letter states that: “If you are taking folic acid then it’s important to take vitamin B supplement to prevent damage” the author is apparently ignorant of the harm that will follow without B12 injections.
The one sensible statement included in the letter is that vitamin B12 “is water soluble and therefore not dangerous to take in excess,” very refreshing.
It is vital that all primary care doctors, nurses ,midwives and specialists in all areas of medicine are educated about the seriousness of B12 deficiency and the fundamentals of nutrition.
If our doctors are unable to feel that they can take clinical responsibility for frequent B12 injections (even though this is what is stated in both BNF and NICE Guidelines) then it becomes even more urgent that UK patients are able to buy injectable B12 over the counter in order to look after their own health.
Isolation and hopelessness
There are many things that patients who are B12 deficient can’t understand about the way they are treated once they become diagnosed with vitamin B12 deficiency.
Of course some doctors do treat their patients correctly and fully support individualised treatment. For the rest, B12 is restricted and the battle for treatment begins in those who have the strength and/or the support of loved ones.
Some patients believe their GP is correct when told that too much B12 would be harmful. Others feel forced to accept the situation because their partner or family member insists the GP must know best, finding themselves totally isolated and without hope.
Nobody wants to have to fight for health especially when they are on their knees, mentally and physically.
If you are a patient who needs more B12 and face the challenge of requesting this, taking somebody with you to the doctors for support can be invaluable. Just a squeeze of a hand and reassurance that you are not alone can make the world of difference when trying to communicate how you feel in pleading your case. Writing down what you need to say will help you to remember all your points. The NHS constitution may be a useful tool to help in accessing better treatment for UK readers.
The very least a patient can expect is to be listened to and taken seriously. Ensuring that this happens would make the job of the GP easier and their overall workload lighter, saving the NHS millions. It would be interesting to know just how many appointments are taken up by undiagnosed or under treated B12 deficient patients. Now there’s a research project worth carrying out.
Are you in a situation where you are not being heard and feel isolated? Please don’t give up, join this fantastic support group where you will find help from so many members in the same boat.
REMEMBER this is your life, your health and YOU MATTER. You are the expert on how YOU feel, no one else.
Are you a doctor reading this, do you know how we feel?
How would you cope with your job, family, home if for only 44 weeks out of 52 you were unable to function? Can you give us your side of the story? Anonymously?
If you can, please email in confidence to email@example.com.