Gluten / food allergies and muscle and joint pain

Posted on April 3, 2013

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joint pain food allergy gluten

If only it were that easy…

I received this question a bunch of times recently. Oddly, I’ve only received this question through people who have found me online. In however many years I don’t think I’ve had a single person ask me this in person.

The gist of the question is, “I’ve had X or Y pain forever, do you think a food allergy / gluten could be responsible?”

My short answer to this question is, “Highly doubtful.”

I’m not going to go over a bunch of research on this. My answer is based more on anecdotal evidence and logic. Take it as you please.

My longer answer:

Intolerance versus allergy

It’s worth mentioning those (adults) who think they have a food allergy they don’t know about, and they will make things better by something such as an “elimination diet,” are practically guaranteed to be wrong.

When you have a food allergy, you often KNOW you have it.

The 30 year old who is allergic to peanuts doesn’t think, “Yeah, I think peanuts just might not agree with me; let me try getting rid of them.” No. The 30 year old who is allergic to peanuts knows he is allergic to peanuts because he nearly died when he was 8, the last time he put some peanuts in his mouth.

In contrast, an intolerance is something one is typically aware of, but nowhere near as severe as an allergy. The fact milk makes you feel like you could mark an entire country as your territory due to the intensity of your farting is really a pretty small deal, you know, compared to death.

This is pretty simple: When something doesn’t agree with you, you’re often made aware of it quickly. I don’t mean within a few months, I mean within (at most) a couple hours, and at a pretty young age. It might take you a little while to figure out that exact thing, but you’re readily aware something isn’t agreeing with you. And then most people will regularly avoid the food giving them issues. Meaning -for an adult- the food presenting an issue has already been eliminated.

And if it hasn’t, local joint pain is unlikely the only manifestation.

Local versus systemic pain

When it comes to a food allergy or gluten issue, the issue would pretty much have to be systemic. You wouldn’t have an issue with gluten and ONLY get right sided knee pain; you’d get pain all over. This is because issues of this sort deal with the immune system, and the immune system is all over the body.

Now, some joints could certainly be worse e.g. right knee hurts more than the other joints, but there’s probably something else going on at the joint, which is how it moves. Examples of this later on.

Think of it like getting the flu. You don’t get the flu and go, “Yeah, my one thigh is really achey;” you go “Man, my whole body is really achey.” And maybe you say “Especially my throat.”

Not to mention a bunch of other symptoms.

Other issues would be apparent

From the Mayo Clinic, symptoms of a food allergy:

  • Tingling or itching in the mouth
  • Hives, itching or eczema
  • Swelling of the lips, face, tongue and throat, or other parts of the body
  • Wheezing, nasal congestion or trouble breathing
  • Abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea or vomiting
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting

Severe issues with gluten is referred to as Celiac disease. Symptoms of which include (via WebMD):

  • Gas, bloating, abdominal swelling
  • Abnormal stools
  • Unexpected weight loss
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Vomiting

Point here being the likelihood your food allergy or gluten issues are only pissing your lower back off, are basically none. Even if a food issue was causing joint pain, there’s an extreme likelihood this joint issue wouldn’t be your primary concern.

I mean, I’m assuming you’re more likely to go to the doctor because it looks like you just shit a newborn out of your ass than you are to get your achey back checked out.

Of course, this is if you even have a food issue to begin with.

Probability

From what I’ve seen food allergies occur in 3-4% of the (United States) populationand Celiac / Gluten issues are even less at 1 percent of the population. Based off probability, there is an extreme likelihood you don’t have an issue of this nature, and based off my experience, there is an extreme likelihood you DO have an issue with how you move.

Another way I look at this is,

Me: “Do you have pain laying down on your back?”

For nearly all joint issues the answer to this question is no.

Then,

Me: “So when do you have pain?”

[Person describes a scenario.]

Me: “So it’s after you move around for a while? Or do X movement?”

Person: “Yes.”

Me: “Then we need to change how you move and or do X movement.”

I have so far never seen someone with a particular joint issue, take one ingredient / food out of their diet, and seen that joint issue disappear. I don’t plan on it either.

Examples of people with systemic issues

I’ve trained a decent amount of people with systemic pain / inflammation issues. Not a lot, but enough to notice some patterns.

If not properly managed, this population has pain pretty much all the time; pretty much all over. While their knee(s) may hurt, so do their hands, shoulders, and even face. And there’s no real pattern to their pain. They could just be laying down, or walking, or in the bath tub trying to relax. Doesn’t matter. It’s not, “Yeah, when I go up the stairs, or squat, or bend my legs, my knees hurt.” It’s more of, “My knees just always hurt…and so does X, Y, Z.”

You see the difference?

Another way I look at this is if someone has a few issues in close proximity, like a knee / hip / lower back, but no upper body issues, the chances they have a systemic pain issue are minimal.

That’s not to say one joint may not feel worse than the others. One person I have with rheumatoid arthritis had pain all over, wrists, shoulders, knees, but her right knee and shoulders hurt more. There were definitely movement issues at the right knee and shoulders though. Meaning there were some patterns there. By working on those things we could help alleviate some of the pain.

Another person with fibromyalgia: Similar to the above. Pain all over, but considerably worse on the left wrist. After looking at things we discovered the position this woman typed in was killing her left wrist. By working on this, and eliminating certain exercises, I was able to do some good for the wrist.

However, at best, I could only get these people back to the original systemic level. I can’t cure the underlying disease, but I can try to make sure the movement issues don’t exacerbate the systemic problem. This is not a guarantee though. Trying to make a joint feel better when that much inflammation is present is no easy task.

In any case where I worked with someone of this nature the person was well aware of their issue before ever seeing me. I can only recall one people I ever advised to get blood work done to see if something else was going on. In that case my thinking was, “They appear to be moving pretty damn well, AND they’re having pain all over, they need to rule other factors out.”

For me, this is very rare. If anyone is curious, the one person had a severe Vitamin D deficiency. To give you an idea of the difference between her and most people, she could do a ton of lunging, walking, squatting, pulling, etc. all with no particular joint issue, but rolling over on a mat or getting off the ground would be painful all over. Not to mention the dizzy spells, excessive fatigue, depression, propensity to cry, etc.

“But I heard…”

I know, you heard a person got rid of some food and all of a sudden their football size tumor vanished. Or their knee pain of 10 years is now gone. Whatever it is, stop worrying about n = 1.

In many of these cases -ones where someone eliminated a food group or made a drastic dietary change- you have to take into account other changes that likely occurred. Did the person also lose 50 pounds? Because if they did, it’s quite hard to say anything about the one ingredient they stopped eating. Losing weight helps everything.

Besides the obvious of having less weight to lug around, losing a considerable amount of weight can allow people to move better, something I’ll go into detail on another day.

“But therapy and exercise didn’t work…”

Lastly, just because you went to physical therapy or tried some stretches and it didn’t work, does not mean physical therapy doesn’t work, or your issue isn’t movement related. In most cases it means the person who was trying to help you didn’t know what they were doing, and or was too busy talking on the phone collecting your insurance payment. The fact of the matter is most physical therapists / personal trainers / orthopedists do not do a good job treating chronic injuries.

If you went to a physical therapist for a shoulder issue and you spent 45 minutes every session pulling on a bunch of bands, finishing up with some “ice and stim,” you know what I’m saying. By the way, “stim” is where they put those rubber pads on you and essentially shake the shit out of a body part. It’s where you’re thinking, “Is this really doing anything? And would this extensive vibration feel a lot better on another body region?”

In the other cases it may mean you didn’t listen to what you were told. You can’t tell me exercise doesn’t work when you didn’t do the exercises.

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Posted in: Pain