The Role of Food in Chronic Pain

5650486605_f38434c896_zI 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

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14 Responses to “The Role of Food in Chronic Pain”

  1. downfromtheledge September 18, 2013 at 9:47 pm #

    It’s almost uncanny to read this & listen to Curt’s story, having been off work recently with pain radiating down my arm, my hand turning blue, and hearing “Thoracic Outlet Syndrome” thrown out there as a possible diagnosis (but mostly perplexed looks and no clear answers).

    The agony and frustration of not knowing what was wrong and no one being able to help…I have been there myself with a chronic hip situation – I thought about suicide every day for 5 years. But I can also relate to the long history of chronic pain starting w/teenage headaches, then shoulder and neck tension, TMJ, SI joint/piriformis syndrome…and now this bizarre shoulder and arm deal.

    Rolfing, massage, chiro, ART, physical therapy, herbs, medications – you name it, I’ve done it. And some of it really has helped (especially Rolfing!) the pain.

    I’ve basically become vegan since June after abdominal pain led me to get blood allergy testing done, which showed intolerance to dairy and eggs (I was already vegetarian). But that hasn’t solved the issue…after this post I will hunker down and try the full elimination. The thought of giving up MORE foods is tough…but as you said, pain will push you to try anything.

    Had to thank you both. Wish I could hear more!

    • Brooke September 20, 2013 at 7:48 pm #

      I’m glad you found Curt’s story! The collective FFF tribe is rooting for you on your healing journey. Wishing you the best!

    • Curt Chaffee September 21, 2013 at 1:50 am #

      Hey, Ledge! Glad you are down from there. Regarding the thought of giving up more food, I know that it seems like a burden we shouldn’t have to bear, on top of everything else. But I have had a complete turn around on this. I’ve discovered a real love for fresh food. Especially in combination with beans and handmade corn tortillas. I slice fresh tomatillo peppers, fresh tomatoes, avocado, sliced cabbage, make my own corn salsa or pineapple relish… I’ll have some variation of this every day. Honestly, I eat as much now as I ever have, just better. Try eliminating wheat and be religious about it for at least 30 days. Never know until you try.

  2. Monique September 20, 2013 at 2:36 pm #

    It’s wonderful to read a recovery story like this one! I, too, am familiar with chronic pain caused by food – and even knowing about the effects of certain foods on my body (wheat/food cooked in industrially processed seed oils like canola or corn oil) doesn’t always mean I make the right choices. After falling off the wagon, when my body and joints are aching and my back is in a great deal of pain the next day, with residual symptoms for days after, I feel like kicking myself! Plus, wheat = insta-acne for me. 🙁

  3. Peggy Sheldon September 20, 2013 at 4:01 pm #

    A very interesting interview…similar to my story.From birth diagnosed with malnutrition…very shaky baby squint in both eyes at 9 months . A skinny hyperactive child always at the hospital, for suspected appendicitis .so basically IBS . Like Curt around started having migraines at around 10 yrs old I thought I was going blind I had them for many years till I discovered MSG was the cause Thinking back my mother used stock cubes in stew.i would get the migraine the following day. Huge health problems, chronically I’ll all thru my life . Lots of gynae issues had 7 surgerys before having hysterectomy at age 33.the year after I was diognosed with R A. That’s when I started eliminating diet GLUTEN was the main culprit .I reversed the RA…I trained in just about every modalitie What helped most NST Bowen Therapy…Blood type diet Feldonkrais helped in my awareness of movement . Katy Bowmans work is brilliant also Foundation with Dr Eric Goodman. I am in heart failure. Had surgery last year which has really messed me up again . I recently was diognosed with EDS. ..hypermobility syndrome …also loading iron …these major issues …nobody came up with ..I seen some of the best Drs /nutritionists & bioresonence practitioners…nothing helped other than my never ending search …My hero …Dr Tom O Bryan.. The dr .comhe knows everything there is to know about GLuten what. Most people don’t know is ..gluten sensitivity … a neurological / inflammation problem…I was eating gluten 1 day a week until I saw Tom…that was what was destroying my heart. I am rebuilding myself again .I am Irish I have all the genetic faults now I know I was born with spina bifida…had TB
    Gluten intolerant iron loading (haemochromotosis ) & EDS I have made this reply as short as possible ….I cannot change the journey ….but I can adjust the sales

    • Brooke September 20, 2013 at 7:42 pm #

      Thanks for sharing everything that has helped you Peggy! We’re all cheering you on on your healing journey!

  4. Curt Chaffee September 20, 2013 at 5:09 pm #

    Thanks, Brook, for the opportunity to share this. If it brings hope and inspiration to just one person it is well worth the effort. For the sake of anyone wondering how food intolerance brought about my painful, neurological condition–or might be affecting others in a similar way– I would like to quickly explain. After years of eating what my body considered to be slow poison, the toxins and inflammation had turned my muscles, especially the large muscle groups, into a rigid, knotted, mass of trigger points and glue. In particular, I had developed a large knot in my trapezius near the base of my neck. This knot was essentially pinching the brachial plexus (large bundle of nerves) as it exited my spine on the left side. And this leads me to the final point I would like to make. I hesitate to say it…but I will. The dominant mentality in modern medicine insists that if you are experiencing symptoms A and B it can only be caused by C. If C is ruled out the tendency is to suggest a lifetime of drug treatment and/or refer the patient to a psychiatrist. Do yourself a favor, folks. If this sounds familiar and you are suffering chronic pain, try eliminating the foods that are known to trigger inflammation and an immune response. Talk to Brook, see Dr. Shunney or make an appt with a good nutritionist. It could very well change your life. It saved mine.

    • Brooke September 20, 2013 at 7:41 pm #

      Thanks for giving us some more detail Curt and for sharing your story! It’s giving hope to a lot of people.

    • downfromtheledge September 22, 2013 at 8:26 pm #

      My trapezius is inflamed and I have several trigger points – glad 2 know this before spending more $ on treatments or tests…at least this gives me action 2 take in the meantime unless or until they find some other cause.

      Is there a particular book or anti-inflammatory diet program to start with? There r so many for various purposes that it’s hard to narrow down.

      • Curt Chaffee September 23, 2013 at 5:33 pm #


        If you were in California, I would strongly suggest a visit with Dr. Shunney in Santa Cruz:

        But there is much information online regarding inflammatory catalysts including this site that i have found helpful:

        Dr. Shunney had me eliminate dairy, gluten and processed sugar products during my 30 day “diet”. Eliminating gluten and simple carbs had the greatest effect. However, I also have learned that coffee and caffeinated beverages other than green tea do not help me at all. I strongly believe that you will be amazed at the difference in the way your muscles feel and the way you feel, mentally and emotionally by eliminating as many of the dietary triggers of inflammation as possible. I have begun eating at least one fresh pepper a day, tomatillos are excellent but sweet and Bell peppers are also great. Try experimenting. Have fun! Eat a green vegetable today and a red one tomorrow, a yellow the next day. Purple, orange, white , amazing variety! My diet has never been more varied. I love it!

  5. downfromtheledge September 28, 2013 at 2:40 pm #

    No such luck, being in the Midwest, but there are a couple people who practice functional medicine around here that I have been considering. I’m going to check out the books and resources you, Brooke, and Dr. Shunney have given us and try an elimination diet on my own….but at least I know my next step if I can’t get this figured out.

    I still can’t get over how timely these posts have been with what I am going through…it’s funny how people discredit the alternative/complementary approaches, when they may be the very things to heal us when all else has failed.

    I’m lucky to already love and eat all of the good stuff being vegan; now is the time to really face my addiction to sugar. Aside from one oreo slipup this week, I cut out sugar and processed foods completely. Went through a few days of feeling like holy hell, but yesterday and today I’m in far less pain, with a much clearer mind. Feels like I’m on the right track.

    I think secretly I hoped it would be something “easy” I was allergic to, that was causing the problem, so I could still continue to eat the crap I know is awful for me.

    • Brooke September 30, 2013 at 2:22 pm #

      Well I’m glad to hear you’re beginning to feel better- keep on keeping on!


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