Half of patients undergoing orthopedic surgery are vitamin D deficient, a new study shows – potentially slowing recovery. Vitamin D helps heal bones and increase muscle strength, two processes vital for surgery recovery.

“In arthritis you have [damage to] the joint, but the muscles that drive the joint are extraordinarily affected by vitamin D levels. In order for the ‘motors’ for the joints to work you have to get vitamin D up,” explains Joseph Lane, MD, professor of orthopaedic surgery and chief of the Metabolic Bone Disease Service at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, who led the study.

Reversing vitamin D deficiency is important for all patients, especially those with arthritis. Dr. Lane believes people with arthritis will respond well to vitamin D, which will not only increase bone quality, but also help reduce the risk of bone fracture associated with rheumatoid arthritis. “This [vitamin plays] a very critical part of protecting the skeleton.”

For the study, published in The Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery, Lane and his research team measured vitamin D levels in 723 patients slated to have orthopaedic surgery between January 2007 and March 2008 at Hospital for Special Surgery.

Levels of vitamin D above 32 ng/mL were considered normal. Levels between 20 and 32 ng/mL were considered insufficient and levels below 20 ng/mL were categorized as deficient.

Based on those categories, 43 percent of all participants had insufficient levels and 40 percent had deficient levels.

When the analysis was broken down by area of surgery, trauma patients were most lacking in D: 66 percent had insufficient levels and 52 percent were deficient. When it came to hip and knee replacement patients, 38 percent had insufficient levels and 48 percent had deficient levels. Patients who were younger, male, African-American or Hispanic were most likely to suffer from a deficiency.

“What this is saying is a large number of people are coming in with low vitamin D or on the edge,” Dr. Lane explains. So he says whatever the issue that brings you to an orthopaedic doctor, checking vitamin D levels should be part of your pre-op program.