Chronic pain (pain that lasts 6 months or more) can be caused by many things such as autoimmune diseases, overuse injuries and degenerative diseases such as osteoarthritis. Sometimes it just shows up without any cause or link and other times it is a result of an injury.
People often dismiss diet as being a cause of pain but it can make a big difference!
Pain and inflammation
What does it mean to say that you “feel pain”? What’s going on in your body to produce that sensation? Physically, the sensation is being registered in your nerves, so you’re looking for the reason why the nerves in some area of your body are registering a sensation of pain. We can break it down into two options: either there is a physical reason for the pain, or there isn’t:
• Nociceptive Pain: There Is a Physical Reason. It could be something called “nociceptive” pain –there’s a physical stimulus applied to an area in your body. For example, if you have chronic pain in your knee caused by running then there is a physical reason for the pain: injury to the joint.
• Neuropathic Pain: There Is No (Current) Physical Reason. You can also get “neuropathic pain,” which is when there is no physical stimulus but something has gone wrong in the nervous system, and so the nerves are sending your brain the sensation of pain anyway. Multiple sclerosis is a good example of a disease that can cause neuropathy; as can diabetes, cancer, and several others. Sometimes, pain starts as an actual injury, but for some reason the nervous system continues to send the pain signals even after the original physical damage has surpassed.
The problems underlying these different kinds of pain and the drugs used to treat them raises the possibility that diet could be effective, particularly by reducing inflammation in the body.
In the case of nociceptive pain, inflammation can actually be the physical stimulus that causes the pain. Chronic inflammation in your body can both trigger the nociceptors to feel pain and make them more sensitive to other stimuli. An example of this at work is the soreness in your muscles after a hard workout. The actual reason why you feel pain is that the inflammation in the muscle tissue is affecting your nociceptors. If your body is chronically inflamed for some other reason, it could potentially cause a similar response.
Inflammation is tied up with chronic pain whether the pain comes from another disease (e.g. cancer), mechanical stress (e.g. poor posture, abnormal bone structure, back pain from sitting all day, “runner’s knee”), or whether it doesn’t have any identifiable cause at all.
Anti-inflammatory drugs like NSAIDs are effective for chronic pain, but extensive use may cause problems such as intestinal ulcers or kidney failure down the line. But they do work, suggesting that reducing inflammation is key to reducing pain. There are many foods that cause inflammation in the body and many that provide anti-inflammatory properties. Getting the correct balance can allow you to reduce pain without affecting your other organs by using medication.
This is not to say that all pain can be cured by diet – if you have chronic pain secondary to some other disease, Step 1 is to go to a doctor for that disease. But based on the research above, here’s a list of practical ways that you could use to potentially decrease pain:
• Eat an anti-inflammatory diet. Yes to fish, fresh fruits and vegetables, spices, herbs, and tea. Easy on nuts, seeds, and other Omega-6 fats. Inflammation and inflammatory diseases both contribute to chronic pain, and diet has a strong ability to modify the pain-inflammatory response.
• Eat alkalizing foods and avoid acidic foods – include lots of leafy greens, capsicum, lemons and garlic. Avoid excess wheat and other grains, cheese, beans and lentils, meat, coffee and alcohol.
• Live an anti-inflammatory lifestyle. Ensure you get enough sleep every night, regular but moderate exercise (walking is fine), and reduce stress as much as possible.
• Pay attention to your gut. Leaky gut and other gut problems are inflammatory. Ensure you are getting good bacteria (probiotics, fermented foods) and avoiding anything that causes gas, bloating or nausea.
• Fix your movement: Human bodies were not designed to sit down all day and then run for an hour on a treadmill. When we do that to them, they send us a signal that something is wrong: pain. Look into ways to address posture issues, mobility problems, old repetitive stress injuries, or any other mechanical or movement issues might be behind your pain.
There’s no one “right answer” to chronic pain. There’s no magic pill that will make it go away. But considering what diet can do for pain, an anti-inflammatory, gut-healing diet sounds like a good idea to me!