When you’re living with chronic pain, one of the first steps to an effective treatment plan is determining the cause the pain. Unfortunately, that isn’t always an easy task. For many people, their pain isn’t associated with an injury, illness, surgical recovery or other obvious cause. Finding the right treatment, then, becomes a process of trial and error, which can take a great deal of time and increase the pain and discomfort.
However, there is a growing body of evidence indicating that joint and muscle pain doesn’t have anything to do with how we use our bodies but rather what we eat. Although most people associate gluten intolerance and celiac disease with gastrointestinal issues, the effects that gluten can have on the body extend far beyond the stomach.
The Gluten — Pain Connection
“Gluten-free” has become a buzzword in the food and dieting circles over the past few years, with millions of people cutting foods that contain the protein from their diets. As trendy as it’s become, though, researchers suspect that only about 1 percent of the population actually has celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that can damage the digestive system in addition to causing a host of other health issues.
Gluten intolerance, on the other hand, is far more common. It’s suspected that up to 13 percent of the population has some sort of gluten intolerance, also known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity, which can cause a wide range of other symptoms and discomforts. In either case, celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity are strongly linked to joint and muscle pain. When a person with these conditions eats foods containing gluten, the immune system activates as a defense against the protein. The result is inflammation and pain in the joints. This pain can be chronic or intermittent and typically comes without any outward symptoms such as redness or inflammation. It’s also not always consistent in terms of location; patients have reported pain throughout the body. Someone who has stiffness in their fingers one week might have sore knees or calves the next.
The fact that gluten-related pain is so inconsistent can make it difficult to pinpoint the cause of the pain or develop a treatment plan with a Langhorne, PA pain management specialist. Often, the additional symptoms of a gluten intolerance mimic those of other conditions, leading patients to be tested for chronic conditions such as Lyme, lupus and more, without any conclusive findings. With the growing knowledge of gluten-related conditions, though, more doctors are testing for sensitivities sooner, but many people suffer unnecessarily because they don’t know that gluten is making them sick.
Going Gluten-Free: More Than Just Bread
In a 2014 study, researchers found that there was a significant correlation between celiac disease and joint inflammation in children and that eliminating gluten from the diet can have significant benefits. By looking at ultrasound images of the hips, knees and ankles of children with celiac, half of those children who were not on a gluten-free diet had inflammation, as opposed to 11 percent of the children who were on such a diet.
This is just part of a growing body of evidence indicating that diet can be beneficial to reducing pain, especially among those with a gluten intolerance. However, going gluten free requires more than just eliminating bread and baked goods from one’s diet. Gluten is found in wheat, barley, and rye, and often “hides” in processed food under other names. Many common foods, including salad dressings, soy sauce, and even hot dogs can contain small amounts of gluten. It’s important to work with your doctor or a registered dietician to find the right diet for you, that ensures you are still getting all your essential nutrients.
Joint pain isn’t the only symptom of a gluten sensitivity, but when it occurs with other symptoms including digestive issues, migraines, fatigue, skin rashes and anemia, it is worth exploring the possibility of gluten as the culprit. The only way to confirm a diagnosis is via bloodwork and an endoscopic biopsy, but your doctor may also suggest an elimination diet to determine whether that eases your symptoms. In any case, if you have unexplained pain and can’t find relief, it’s worth exploring the possibility of an autoimmune disease as the culprit.