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.