I recorded this interview a couple of months ago, and re-listening to it now it still gives me chills. And gets me all welled up with tears. As a part of my “Let Freedom Ring” series, where I talk with people who have recovered from chronic pain and mobility conditions, I had the great honor of talking with Curt Chaffee. Curt is a patient of Dr. Aimée Shunney’s, whose interview is coming up next week. Before you hear from Aimée, I wanted you all to have a chance to hear from Curt’s mouth how profoundly impactful a very simple tool was in healing his chronic pain. That simple tool was an elimination diet. I.e. removing foods that are commonly not tolerated very well by many people, like gluten, dairy, soy, etc, and seeing what changes it might make.
Let me back up a moment and describe what I mean a bit more by profoundly impactful. Before Curt tried the elimination diet that Dr. Shunney recommended he was at his worst. While the first signs of what would become a severe pain pattern had begun when he was about eleven years old, with profound headaches and muscle spasms, the worst of it did not begin until his late thirties. At that time he developed severe neurological pain, to the point where he had to go into the emergency room with sharp, electric, stabbing pain down his left arm. Initially of course the doctors thought he had had a heart attack, but they quickly discovered that that wasn’t the case. From there he was admitted and spent a week in the hospital heavily sedated on pain killers in order to try and figure out what this pain pattern was that seemed to have no rhyme or reason to it.
This kicked off a ten year long process of doctors finding things they thought might be the problem. Curt had 7 surgeries. They removed his first rib. They stripped muscles in his neck. A few surgeires were just experimental to go in and scrape nerves and vertebrae of any scar tissue they could find. The general consensus was that there had to be some physical structure that was impinging the brachial plexus nerves. But since the surgeries did absolutely nothing to mitigate the pain, depression set in. In fact, the pain was still getting progressively worse. Any intervals of being pain free were shorter and shorter, and Curt spent months incapacitated in bed. After surgery had clearly failed, he went to pain therapy, where stronger and stronger drugs were tried to quell the pain. At this time he also learned how to meditate, which he credits with keeping him alive through all of this. But the pain killers did nothing other than making him “stupid”, in his own words.
At this time he sought out naturopathic medicine because he had tried everything else and was desperate. This brought him to Dr. Shunney. He was at his worst, and had seen all of the best doctors in California. Intially, Dr. Shunney said she didn’t know what was going on either, and for his first few months of working with her, nothing really changed. The day his life turned around was when she turned to look at his diet. He began an elimination diet, cutting out gluten, dairy, and cutting way back on sugar. By the end of the first month he was 50% better. In 6 months he was 80% better. Ultimately it was the wheat gluten that was the worst trigger.
Today he is back at work, back to racing his motorcycle, playing his guitar, and playing golf. At the time of our talk, he had just came home from a backpacking trip in Big Sur in which he carried a heavy pack for days.
One of the things I really love in our conversation is that he emphasizes that it isn’t over. He still has mild chronic pain symptoms from all the years of stress, the trauma of surgeries, etc, but he’s not at all down about that. Instead he radiates gratitude and clearly enjoys working on helping his body to keep getting better, and better and better! Curt says about this part of the process, “You feel so much better that you then have the energy and motivation to take it further.”
Even if you know food isn’t a culprit for you, hearing the hope and gratitude in Curt’s voice will go a long way to helping you if you are finding your way out of your own chronic pain pattern.
Lastly, I just want to say that we forget to think holistically in ways other than just how we see the musculoskeletal/myofascial interconnection of the body. We assume that food can only be about gut stuff. Curt was not having intestinal symptoms. We assume that if food were the culprit that his symptoms would have resembled something like Irritable Bowel Syndrome, but his problem was severe neurological pain. From food. We’ve got to take everything into consideration when we’re trying to get well. So don’t forget the old adage, you are what you eat…
Without further ado, here is Curt in his own words:
photo by Martin Linkov