Wheat Is A Pain In The Neck

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Throughout my thirties and forties, I experienced fairly regular backaches. I’m not talking about excruciating pain, mind you. It was more like a tightness and dull ache in the lower back that usually came around at night. Sometimes it was enough to wake me from sleep. I’d try to fix it by lying flat on my back, raising my right leg, then tossing it to the left. Then I’d repeat the process with the left leg. Sometimes I’d feel little pops, like when you crack your knuckles, and that seemed to loosen up the tightness.

Those backaches went away when I switched to a low-carb diet and stopped eating wheat. There was no great AHA! moment. It wasn’t like experiencing sudden relief from nagging pain. It just occurred to me after some months that I wasn’t waking up with those annoying lower-back pains anymore.

Chareva had a similar experience, only her little aches and pains were in her neck. It seemed every other night, she woke up and began fluffing her pillow, trying different arrangements of pillows, all in an attempt to find the perfect angle of support so her neck felt comfortable. I used to tell her I’m glad we’ve opted for cremation when we die; otherwise I’d worry she’ll spend eternity lying in a casket with her neck propped at an angle she finds disagreeable.

As in my case, there was no sudden, life-changing sense of relief after giving up wheat. The neck pains just went away. Eventually we both commented on how the annoying aches and pains were gone, figured the change in diet probably had something do with it, and otherwise didn’t think much about it.

I did think about it recently because of my daughter Sara. She inherited my body type, all the way down to the O negative blood. Once she hit puberty, sugary foods made her feel queasy – exactly what happened to me in my teens. She noticed a couple of years ago that when she eats white flour, she gets little red, itchy patches on her arms afterwards. Consequently, we don’t have to preach to her about the health effects of sugar and wheat.  She generally avoids them.

However, last weekend she participated in a speech and debate tournament in a town about an hour from here. After the tournament, the organizers served the kids pizza. Sara was hungry and figured what the heck? So she ate pizza.

Later that night, she was watching TV with Chareva and me and started shifting her head a little this way, then that way. Then she complained that her neck was bothering her and she couldn’t find a comfortable position. Since she’s been listening to us talk about this stuff for several years now, she made the connection herself: it could be a reaction to the pizza, some kind of inflammation.

A couple of days later, I went looking for the first time to see if there are studies or least some interesting articles on a connection between gluten and backaches or neckaches. Yup.

I wasn’t surprised when one of the first articles that popped up was from Dr. William Davis’ Wheat Belly Blog:

I believe we need to add back pain to the list of common health conditions that are relieved with wheat elimination.

Not to say that all back pain goes away with wheat; it course it does not. But there are people who obtain substantial relief from even years of debilitating pain with wheat elimination.

After sharing a reader’s letter about debilitating back pain disappearing after ditching wheat, Dr. Davis writes this:

I am very grateful that Wendi experienced this life-changing event, an effect I’ve seen in many other people. But the question that plagues me is why? What is it in this crazy creation of geneticists that would cause such an effect? Is it some inflammatory response triggered by wheat lectin? Is it some peculiar gastrointestinal effect of gliadin expressed in the back?

Good questions. Dr. Amy Burkhart writes about similar experiences with patients in a post on The Celiac MD site:

In my previous practice as an emergency room doctor, I saw numerous people with back pain. It was often due to a traumatic injury related to lifting, a fall or a car accident. However, sometimes we could not pinpoint exactly why someone was suffering. We evaluated and treated the back pain, even when the true cause could not be identified.

Fast forward 10 years to my current integrative medicine practice. Many of my patients have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. As they tell me their medical history, many recount back pain so severe it required MRI’s, medication and therapy. Some had mysterious pain that no one could explain. In many cases, the back pain in these patients simply resolved with a gluten-free diet.

There is scant information in the medical literature on the relationship between low back pain and celiac disease, but what is available is worthy of mention. In a 2010 study evaluating back pain and sacroiliitis (inflammation in the joints around the tailbone), 70% of adult celiac patients were found to have changes or involvement of the sacroiliac joints.

The 2010 study Dr. Burkart mentions is this one:

All patients were currently on gluten-free diet and none of the patients had gastrointestinal symptoms at the time of the study. Using various imaging techniques, involvement of the sacroiliac joints was confirmed in 70% of celiac patients. Imaging revealed different morphological changes in the sacroiliac joint, e.g. accumulation of synovial fluid, synovitis, erosion with concomitant sclerosis, sacroiliitis or calcification of the ligament. These changes probably represent different clinical stages and/or manifestations of the same process. In a follow-up study of eight patients, after 11 years on a gluten-free diet, the great majority of patients had no clinical symptoms; yet, a subclinical progression of the sacroiliac joint involvement could be verified.

Interesting. The study suggests that the celiac patients still had damage at the base of the spine, but were no longer feeling the pain after going on a gluten-free diet.

This article on the Arthritis Health website was interesting as well:

Psoriatic arthritis is a condition that causes pain and swelling in the joints and scaly patches of skin known as psoriasis. Psoriatic arthritis occurs in people with psoriasis, but not everyone with psoriasis develops the arthritis.

Psoriasis is a chronic inflammatory skin condition that causes severe itching, most commonly in patches on the elbows, knees, and scalp. An estimated 10% of patients with psoriasis will develop psoriatic arthritis, with the joint symptoms often appearing approximately 10 years after the start of the skin condition.

Psoriatic arthritis will first manifest as the skin condition in most cases, sometimes years before joint symptoms will be present. The joints that are most commonly affected with psoriatic arthritis include those closest to the tips of the fingers and toes. The joints of the hips, knees, and spine can also become involved.

As I’ve mentioned before, I had a patch of psoriasis on the back of my head that went away after I gave up wheat. The Arthritis Health article doesn’t mention wheat or gluten, but the connection between psoriasis and arthritis certainly points to a common cause.

As. Dr. Davis and Dr. Burkhart both mentioned in their articles, there’s not much research out there directly linking gluten to back and neck pain. But there seems to be rather a lot of experience. As Dr. Burkhart writes:

Anecdotally, I do see low back pain as a manifestation of celiac disease and it commonly resolves after diagnosis and initiation of a gluten-free diet. It also frequently recurs if gluten is ingested.

I don’t have celiac disease. Since I don’t seem tolerate wheat very well, I had the test just to be sure. But I’m convinced you don’t have to be diagnosed with full-blown celiac disease to experience problems with wheat. Eat wheat, I have back pain and other problems. Don’t eat wheat, the problems go away. Same goes for my wife and older daughter. Makes you wonder how many people are popping pain pills and running out for chiropractic treatments when what they really need is to ditch the wheat, doesn’t it?

My psoriasis wasn’t severe. My back pains weren’t severe either. But man, I’m glad they’re both gone. Giving up wheat was a small price to pay.

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33 thoughts on “Wheat Is A Pain In The Neck

  1. Desmond

    My son participates in several high school speech & debate tournaments a year. Parents are encouraged to be volunteer judges. The nice thing is that the host schools provide judges with food… but it is usually a carb fest. So speech & debate can be a pain in the neck too!

    Reply
  2. Wayne

    I gave up golf over ten years ago because of arthritis in wrists and fingers. Then I read Wheat Belly and gave up the grain…arthritis gone.

    Reply
    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      Outstanding. My friend Howard Harkness, who I know from the low-carb cruises, had to give up the violin because of arthritis. Then he stopped eating wheat. Now he plays the violin again.

      Reply
  3. Kirk

    Or it could be pesticides. A long time ago I realized that regularly-grown coffee made hard knots develop in my muscles. No amount of massage could relieve the tension. Those muscle knots went away when I switched to organic coffee. Same thing happened to my wife.

    Not that I’m a fan of wheat. I’ve been eating wheat-free for 30 years.

    Reply
      1. Lori Miller

        Having the car seat too far back, walking a big dog that pulled on the leash and sleeping on a flat pillow have all put my neck and shoulders through the wringer even on a wheat-free diet.

        Instant coffee makes my stomach feel raw.

        Reply
  4. Lori Miller

    Advertisers on Youtube seem to think psoriatic arthritis is caused by listening to heavy metal, or that they’re related in some way I can’t fathom. Some time ago when I was looking at a lot of 80s rock videos, I constantly saw ads for some psoriatic arthritis medication, even though I’ve never had psoriasis or arthritis and never looked up info on either one.

    Reply
        1. Tom Naughton Post author

          At least they sing. I’ve been to karaoke nights on the low-carb cruise where youngsters chose rap songs from the catalog, thus proving they could get up in front of a crowd and … talk … with the words displayed on a screen in front of them. Perhaps they were just proving they can read aloud.

          Reply
        2. Vinny

          Try Ghost’s “Opus Eponymous”- No cookie monster vocals. Or Dylan Carlson’s “Conquistador”- actually no vocals on that one

          Reply
  5. Derek Friedman, DC

    As a chiropractor, you wouldn’t believe how accurate this is. I tell my patients from day one, if you let me fix your insides, (your diet), then you’ll rarely need to be treated. And when you do, it’ll work better and last longer.

    Reply
    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      You’re probably costing yourself some business by giving that advice, so I admire your honesty.

      Reply
  6. Lee Valentine

    If eliminating wheat does not cure the problem, read “Back Mechanic” by Stuart McGill and follow the instructions. Certainly do that before considering drugs or surgery.

    Reply
  7. Nadine

    This aligns exactly with my experiences. In my thirties and forties I had to do back stretches to get rid of the stiff back feeling in the mornings. Wheat and sugar free for six years (but still eating potatoes, rice, lentils etc) and in my fifties, no stiffness. If I do a couple of days with wheat in it, stiffness and feeling like I’m a hundred years old in the mornings.

    Reply
    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      I don’t eat potatoes often, but when I do, I don’t experience any back pain. Pretty sure the pain was related to gluten or gliadin somehow.

      Reply
  8. Martin Levac

    Tom, I used to have some back pain and I used to deal with it the same way you did with lying on my back, putting one leg up and all that stuff, so I understand the big idea here. I also found that this sort of low-level pain went away when I initially quit wheat and sugar and carbs in general. In and of itself, it’s reason enough to quit wheat for a week or so just to see what gives, but there’s a whole lot more going on as I’ll illustrate.

    We’re talking pain here so obviously we immediately think injury cuz the two almost always go together, right? One thing we don’t always think is the relationship between pain and strength. The less pain, the more power we can apply. But in fact, the more pain, the weaker we actually are. This is because strength is regulated by pain normally with a special organ in the tendons, I’m gonna call it the tension detector, you can read up about it. OK so, we lift something or other, we reach a point where the tension is great enough to tear the tendon or rip it from the bone, the organ prevents this by inducing pain way before we reach that point, we get weaker, the tendon and its bone connection is protected. I believe the organ also shortcircuits CNS motor control signal but whatever. There there’s this other thing where we get a fever, pain all over and become weak all over. The point is there’s a relationship between pain and strength.

    Then there’s a relationship between strength and joint integrity. Joints are held together with tendons, some kind of envelope and most importantly for this illustration – muscles. The stronger we are, the stronger the joints. This tells us that when we’re weaker, our joints are more vulnerable to injury cuz it’s just easier to pop them at the same foot-pound torque or tension. So now we got a relationship between pain, strength and joint integrity. Since we’re talking back pain, this means that if we already got some back pain for whatever reason, the muscles there are weaker, and the joints in this area are more vulneralbe to genuine injury. It just becomes easier to pop a disk or something. So now the relationship is between pain, strength, joint integrity and injury – in that order.

    So now another reason to try and quit wheat for a week is to get rid of that nagging pain, get stronger just cuz there’s less pain, improve joint integrity just cuz we’re stronger, and prevent injury just cuz our joints are stronger too. The other side of the coin of course is don’t be an idjit when you lift that stupid box even when you know it’s empty, especially when you know it’s empty cuz that’s exactly when you think you can get away with doing stupid crap with that stupid empty box. I mean, the box is always stupid whether it’s full or empty, don’t let it fool you into thinking you can be stupid too, right? Then you can get stronger by lifting heavy boxes – muscles grow bigger. You can get stronger too just by learning the correct techniques and motions – strength applied will be more closely aligned to lines of force (you know, basic physics stuff). Then you can get stronger just by repetition – practice.

    Then there’s stretching. Do it or don’t? That depends. You wanna get stronger? Don’t stretch. It’s that thing with the tension detector and the relationship between pain and strength. If you still must stretch, do it after whatever you need to do that requires strength. So, you’re about to play 18 holes – don’t stretch. You’re about to lift that heavy box – don’t stretch. On the other hand, you’re about to do the split – go ahead and stretch to your heart’s content, cuz doh, right? Then you might think you gotta be more limber to do whatever, so you gotta stretch, right? Personally, I found that I got more limber just by getting stronger by lifting heavy weights with correct techniques and motions, cuz then the joints got stronger too, less prone to popping, less pain in general, etc. See that relationship again – pain, strength, joint integrity, injury. I mean the idea of being more limber isn’t that we can pop a joint more easily. It’s that we have greater range of motion – without popping a joint. So right there this means if the joint is stronger, it allows greater range of motion – without popping.

    There’s even more to wheat like brain fog and gut stuff but this is enough to show that there is more to it than just that nagging pain.

    Reply
    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      All good points. The nice thing is that since giving up wheat, if my back feels sore, it’s usually because of manual labor — last weekend’s fencing project being an example. The soreness goes away if I just take it easy for a few days.

      Reply
  9. chris c

    This is fascinating! I gave up wheat when I discovered how badly it spiked my blood glucose, then discovered it was also responsible for GERD and farting.

    I had periods when I did something unspeakably painful to something in among all the cables and pulleys between neck and shoulder. Some of it was mechanical – when I moved offices with a different layout of desk, computer, phone, printouts etc. I transferred the problem from one side to the other. It really used to annoy my wife when I had to lurch about in bed trying to find a comfortable position and ended up with my back to her and my thumb jammed into my opposite armpit. It was one of those annoyances where it only caused pain when I tried to relax.

    It’s much better now but I do still get occasional problems even without the wheat, I suspect I caused long term damage.

    Reply
  10. Hilary

    At last – recognition of the sacroiliac involvement. Thank you!

    I suffered from periods of excrutiating sacroiliac pain for years before I gave up gluten. These have been rare, and if they happen, they’ve been pretty mild, since then. I have no idea if I have coeliac disease as I stopped gluten first. My symptoms on consuming gluten are now so extreme that I cannot now get tested.

    My mother suffers from an arthritis that responds very strongly to diet, particularly gluten, dairy and nightshades. She has joint deformation and poor mobility now.

    From my reading, I was wondering if there is a link with ankylosing spondilitis? AS is known to have be associated with gut issues. Or perhaps all of the rheumatic diseases have this tendency.

    Reply
    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      I haven’t seen anything pointing to a link between gluten and ankylosing spondilitis, but my guess is that any inflammatory condition can be aggravated by a reaction to gluten for those of us who are sensitive to the stuff.

      Reply
      1. Firebird7478

        My grandfather had it and it’s not pretty. He never smoked but in the end he needed oxygen because the spine slowly hunched him so far forward that his ribs crushed his lungs.

        I recently saw photos of him when he was in his early 20s when he was able to stand up straight. I never saw that in person at any point in my lifetime.

        My mom thought my sister may have inherited it because of some issues with her posture. But my sister has a lot of joint pain because she eats less than 1000 calories per day, is still a fat phobe who eats fat free foods and protein bars. She did have minor wrist surgery over 20 years ago that developed a staph infection that we think causes a lot of this but I still think her diet is largely to blame.

        Reply
    2. Oliver from Germany

      There´s definitely a link between AS and diet. Dr. Alan Ebringer from the Middlesex Hospital in London has been studying this for more than 20 years: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF03342649
      His studies focus on starch intake (and the effects on the gut biome) and not specificaly grains, but reducing starch requires reducing grains.

      I was diagnosed HLA-B27 positiv 2 years ago, after almost 2 years of severe nightly backaches which required at some point up to 1200mg of Ibuprofen a night, just so I could get 5-6 hours of sleep (not enough), + physical therapy.
      At that time I was following a low-carbish Weston A. Price diet and I did have grains like twice a week. After the diagnosis I went 100% grain free (including 3 months of 100% starch free at the beginning, which showed me that I would not enjoy a carnivore diet).
      The change was slow but life changing. After 6 months I could dump the pharmaceutical painkillers and was able to sleep through the night with the help of CBD-Cannabisoil. After another 6 months I suddenly realized that I had slept several nights without even thinking about taking the oil. For over a year now I´m pain free, no painkillers what so ever!
      I blame the pain on grains, as I can eat potatoes without the pain returning, but a few days of grain eating(as happened once) and the pain is back.

      When I told my friends and family what I changed about my diet, a lot of them remained very sceptical. I guess most people here on this blog went through the pain of unsuccessfully trying to convince a suffering loved one to change their diet, knowing that they would benefit tremendously.

      Reply
  11. Anand Srivastava

    It has been my understanding that WGA (Wheat Germ Agglutinin) damages the gut, which in turn allows gluten to cause the myriad problems. So the main problematic is Wheat. Gluten can be in other grains, but it is wheat that causes them to become problematic.

    Reply
      1. chris c

        Dieticians say it is very important to eat wheat unless you are diagnosed with celiac. Right there is a very good reason for avoiding it. Have they ever got anything right? (a few honourable exceptions)

        Reply
  12. Jan

    I had severe skeletal pain and really bad shoulder pain following a bout of bilateral “frozen shoulder” that took years to resolve. When I first eliminated wheat, I didn’t think it made any difference, UNTIL I added wheat back in to my diet and OMG, I was in so much pain–and also realized that during my 3-week or so wheat free experiment I really wasn’t in constant pain.

    I cheat here and there (in my 7th year of LCHF and grain free), but I do so with the understanding that the cheat will bring me pain. I just went on a 3 day high school trip as a chaperone with my daughter’s high school class. The schedule was jam packed and it was hard for me to get much appropriate food since we were on a college campus with essentially two food venues–my choices were plain hamburger patties or picking croutons out of salads with some dry grilled chicken and dubious dressing. I did pack food, but didn’t realize the hotel fridge was not on when I put my food in there Friday night, and had to toss all my protein the next day :o( So I cheated a bit more than usual, and I’m paying for it now.

    I have no doubt that wheat and pain are associated. A few times I have had the hallmark pain when I didn’t deliberately cheat, only to realize that some processed food I thought was OK had wheat in it. Duh!

    Reply
    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      I cheat on rare occasions too, but I understand the consequences. I eat full-throttle wheat-crust pizza twice per year: my birthday and Super Bowl Sunday. I take an ibuprofen shortly before consuming. Then the next day, I get back to a wheat-free, whole-foods diet.

      Reply

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