Updated: Mar 4, 2019
We've been led to believe joint pain is a normal part of aging. Not so! Chronic joint pain is a symptom of an underlying issue.
This post dives into 5 common root causes and two case studies in which years of "you're-stuck-with-it" joint pain were resolved without drugs or physical therapy.
Let’s start with the six things that could be at the root of aching joints and muscles:
1. Lyme disease
This may seem like a no-brainer, though many don’t think they could possibly have Lyme because they a.) don’t live in New England or b.) haven’t seen the red bullseye rash. Lyme is actually all over the US, and about 30% - 57% of people don't get the rash.
When joint pain is related to a tick-borne illness, it usually comes on quickly and is often asymmetrical and/or migrating, meaning that one day or week one of your hips might bother you, then the pain may move to a shoulder or an elbow or the other hip.
If you have unexpected joint pain and have recently been in the woods or experienced flu-like symptoms, it would be worth discussing the possibility of Lyme with your doctor.
2. Gluten sensitivity
You may have a sensitivity to gluten that you don’t know about (this is possible even when you have no gut symptoms). This damages your gut lining and causes intestinal permeability. This means that larger food particles are able to get through your gut’s barrier before being properly broken down. Your immune system sees them as the enemy, and creates antibodies against them to help clear them out.
The problem is, molecules in gluten look a lot like molecules in your joints. So, if your immune system becomes overzealous, your joint tissue can be mistakenly targeted (this is called molecular mimicry). This can cause joint damage which leads to pain and inflammation. And if you are genetically pre-disposed, it can even trigger rheumatoid arthritis. (Depending on genetics, molecular mimicry issues with gluten can also lead to other autoimmune disorders affecting the thyroid, brain, and more).
3. Mold exposure
This is something to consider if you live in a house that has had a history of basement flooding, or roof leaks, or other issue where water has crept in behind your walls, ceiling, or flooring. Molds secrete mycotoxins, which are toxins that protect the mold as it stakes out a new territory.
While some molds aren’t very harmful to us, others, like stachybotrys (the black mold you’ve likely heard about) and aspergillus produce mycotoxins that can cause a number of health problems (some can be quite serious).
Common symptoms include joint pain and muscle stiffness, especially in the morning. This may be paired with vertigo, night sweats, fatigue, brain fog, recurring sinus symptoms, and more.
4. Heavy metal toxicity
We all get exposed to heavy metals through things like food, water, soda cans, the pans we cook on, deodorants, amalgam fillings, vaccines, and the air we breathe. With prolonged exposure, it can be hard for the body to keep up with removing these metals, especially if you have other health issues. When this happens, our bodies will often sequester them in our tissues, e.g., fat or bones, to get them out of circulation.
While mercury is often linked to joint pain, lead and cadmium are also culprits because they can be stored in bones and cartilage, which displaces calcium. This can cause inflammation, joint pain, and osteoporosis.
Studies have shown that heavy metal toxicity can also contribute to the development of autoimmune diseases including rheumatoid arthritis.
If your body is not producing and utilizing enough thyroid hormones, many issues can result, one of them being joint pain. The reason for this is that when your thyroid hormones are low, your metabolism is slowed. This reduced metabolism can result in fluid build up (body isn't effectively clearing it) and thus inflammation and pain in the joints.
Common joints affected are hips, knees, hands, wrists, and feet. Though back pain is also common, as are general aches and pains.
If your thyroid is the issue, other symptoms you may experience are things like being constantly cold and tired, having dry hair and skin and brittle nails, and having unexplained weight gain.
6. Structural misalignment
I'll always suggest people see a chiropractor if they have chronic pain. Structural issues as well as subluxations (or misalignments) in the spine and neck can interrupt nerve messaging, and can cause both chronic and acute pain. This type if issue can be caused by impact, such as from sports injuries, a fall, a car accident, even the trauma of birth! Poor posture can also put pressure of different areas of the body (e.g., you could have elbow pain that stems from a posture issue).
Chiropractic care can be truly amazing or those suffering from any of these issues. (If you live near Canton, MA, I highly recommend looking up Cantondale Chiropractic.)
These aren’t the only causes of joint pain. It can also result from a variety of autoimmune diseases, bacterial or viral infections, gut pathogens, or even cancer. The above are some common culprits that are most commonly overlooked when assessing joint issues, especially in those over 40.
Regardless, you should always see a doctor when experiencing acute or chronic joint pain. These are just some additional thoughts to explore.
Let’s take a look at two case studies on addressing these root causes.
CASE STUDY #1: ME
In my late 30s, I threw out my lower back while pulling weeds. I went easy on it for months, but it never improved. Around the same time, I developed chronic neck pain.
I finally saw an orthopedist and was told I had a slipped disk and Degenerative Disk Disease. He said, “It’s not really a disease. It’s something that happens to all of us with age. The vertebrae get compressed over time, which causes increasing nerve pain.”
He said now that this process had begun, I'd never again have the back or neck that I had in my 20s. I might have good days, but I should expect to have have off and on pain from here on out, probably worsening over time.
WTF? I wasn’t even 40 yet!
He was right for a while. I continued to have flare ups despite taking the NSAID anti-inflammatories he prescribed. I remember having to be careful brushing my teeth because if I leaned forward a tad too much, I'd tweak my back and pay for it. I’d often ruin my neck for weeks just by turning to look at something.
Any movement had to undertaken *very* carefully. That became my norm.
I remember waking up one morning with a pulsing pain repetitively shooting into my neck. This is the most pain I’ve ever experienced. It was hard not to cry out every time it hit. I couldn't get to my doctor, so he called in a prescription for a muscle relaxant that my husband picked up while I writhed in pain.
I dealt with miscellaneous crap like this for about five years. Until the day I noticed that I wasn't thinking about how to spit out toothpaste without hurting my back. The chronic pain had continued to improve until finally, it was just gone.
My back and neck now feel as strong as they did in my twenties, thank you very much! Need me to help you lift that heavy dresser up the stairs? No problem!
How did I fix it? I sought chiropractic care. I cut foods I was sensitive to, removed most sugar and processed foods, and supported issues in my gut. I also addressed Lyme disease, mold toxicity, and hypothyroidism.
I honestly didn't believe it was possible these changes could eliminate my back and neck issues, but they did. They solved a lot of issues actually. Lesson learned: don't give up on your health!
CASE STUDY #2: ONE OF MY CLIENTS
I have a client who told me she woke up every morning with joint pain. Her foot was so swollen (she had broken her ankle years ago) that walking was painful, shoes were challenging, and four doctors told her that her best solution was surgery.
We dug into explore root causes and found she was sensitive to gluten and dairy, she had a depleted microbiome which had allowed overgrowths of gut bacteria that are potential autoimmune triggers, and she had extremely high markers for gut inflammation (albeit with no digestive symptoms). She also had Rheumatoid Factor antibodies (an Rheumatoid Arthritis risk factor) and a family history of RA.
Given these results, we worked on dietary changes to remove her inflammatory foods while focusing on rebalancing her microbiome, supporting gut health, and reducing inflammation (plus some adrenal function support).
Four months later, she told me that her symptoms of joint pain and swelling (not to mention the migraines she’d had for over 25 years) were all gone. Her foot is back to normal. She was excited to report that she had recently been able to dance the night away in high heels. Yep, surgery is off the table.
As with my own case, discovering the underlying causes of the symptoms was the key to transforming her health.
FIND YOUR ROOT CAUSE
Finding the root cause of chronic pain and symptoms is a powerful thing, and sometimes the recovery process isn’t nearly as hard as you expect.
I invite you to set up a free discovery call with me to learn more about whether a functional wellness approach could help you unlock healing opportunities so that you can once again enjoy life free of pain.
I cannot guarantee the same results as in the case studies, but if you're determined to reclaim your health, digging deeper beneath the surface of your symptoms is a great way to begin the healing process.