Hey Doc, Can Food Allergies cause Pain?

by Christina Lasich, MD Health Professional

Curing chronic pain in some people could be as simple as eliminating certain foods. But as simple as it seems, the fact that food allergies can trigger pain tends to get lost in the blur of searching more complex potential problems. An MRI is not going to show a food allergy. Basic laboratory studies usually miss allergic reactions. And many doctors just don't connect the right dots. As one person testified on a recent Dr. Oz episode:

"I had all the symptoms of bloating, irritable bowel, muscle and joint pain for at least 25 yrs. I went wheat and gluten free in July of 2011 and have lost 17 lbs. I have not had a headache since then and my psoriasis is clearing. It makes me angry that no doctor I ever saw suggested a food allergy."

The difficulty in identifying a problem is often defining the problem. Defining what exactly a food allergy is gets a little hazy because there are various levels of sensitivity. Some doctors delineate between food allergy and food sensitivity based on certain immune system responses namely the Ig E levels. A broader definition for food allergy includes any foods that cause an "altered" reaction. Testing for food allergies usually involves skin tests for one food at a time while watching for symptoms and development of a skin "wheel" or bump.

The severe reactions are usually caused by shellfish, nuts, and peanuts. Sometimes the reactions can be so severe that a person's life can be threatened by anaphylactic shock. The more insidious reactions that come on gradually are the ones that get missed because they are not as shockingly obvious. For example, gluten and dairy sensitivity are commonly undetected but often times linked to chronic pain. Unfortunately if no one sees the link right away, the pain can go on for years like it did for the person that expressed her anger towards the medical community for missing her food allergy.

Once the offending food is eliminated, it's amazing how many symptoms are cured including joint pain, headaches, muscle aches, "growing pains", back pain and tightness. One way to eliminate dairy products was described by Dr. Oz's guest, Dr. Mark Hyman. Once a food is eliminated, it does not necessarily have to stay eliminated. Food that causes a reaction can be re-introduced in a process called desensitization that gradually exposes the individual to very small amounts of the food over many weeks. Interestingly, food rotation in the diet is also encouraged so that other food allergies don't develop in the first place.

If they do develop, food allergies really are an immune system sensitivity that can trigger pain. But how? Aside from the immediate inflammatory response caused by an allergy, the immune system is also linked to the nervous system in several ways that are still being discovered. One link is through the hormonal system. Hormones allow the nervous system to talk to the immune system and visa versa. Scientists have also discovered a fine network of nerves that connect to the lymph glands. All in all, the entire system is connected, so it should not be a surprise the food allergies really can cause pain.

If you think your pain is related to a food allergy, you can see an environmental specialist that can test you for food allergies or you can start by eliminating gluten for three months and if that doesn't work, then eliminate dairy for three months. The trick is to entirely eliminate the suspected food for a long enough period of time. Gluten and Dairy
can be sneaky and found in things that you would not suspect. For more information about how to eliminate gluten, check out the Gluten Free Diet 101. If you want to eliminate dairy, the "Anti-allergy Diet" by Dr. Mark Hyman is a good starting point. By taking a closer look at what you eat, you might find a cure for your pain because foods can trigger chronic pain.

Christina Lasich, MD
Meet Our Writer
Christina Lasich, MD

Christina Lasich, M.D., wrote about chronic pain and osteoarthritis for HealthCentral. She is physiatrist in Grass Valley, California. She specializes in pain management and spine rehabilitation.