June 02, 2022

How Eating Vegan Has Affected My Chronic Pain

I've been wanting to write this for several weeks, but I kept feeling like I needed to write some big, profound post. There actually isn't much to write about! The point of this post isn't to try to convert anyone to eating a vegan diet; I still believe that people should eat the way that is best for *them* and their needs. This is just to describe how it has affected my chronic pain. 

First, a recap of my chronic pain issues (I'll keep this as short as I can)...

I've always had a back problem (I remember it as far back as eight years old) but it's in a very specific spot on my back (the T10-T11 vertebrae). When writing this post, I'm not going to be referring to that pain. That's "normal" for me and because I know it's in that one spot, it's easier to grasp mentally. It's the pain I'll write about below that was almost unbearable.

In 2018-ish, I started feeling sore ALL THE TIME. It felt like I had run a marathon with little training--whole body sore. I was remodeling the house in 2017-2018, so I was used to feeling sore and I just assumed my body was aching because of that. I didn't really start to worry until 2020, after I drywalled the garage. I knew I'd be sore from that, but even months after the garage was done, I felt as sore as I had on Day 1.

I took breaks from all activity, but the pain didn't ease up. It was mostly my joints; my shoulders, neck, hips, back, and hands were the worst. Getting out of bed was really challenging. I would get so sore and stiff during the night that when I woke up, my hands were swollen and I would walk hunched over like a little old lady (I was only 36ish at the time, so it was definitely not normal). I still thought it was due to the heavy work I was doing on the house.

In 2020, I started working on drywalling the garage, which took all summer. It was right around that time that I realized I couldn't really move for about an hour and a half to two hours in the mornings. I spent many, many mornings sobbing because I was in so much pain and nothing was helping. I had no flexibility whatsoever. My body would get so stiff when I wasn't moving, but moving made it hurt and I wanted to sit. A catch-22.

This is a photo that I had Jerry take of my wrists one day. I was pulling my hands back as far as I could and they would barely move--especially my right hand.


At the suggestion of several readers, I made an appointment with a rheumatologist after seeing several doctors (primary care, neurologist, sports medicine, orthopedist) and trying some treatments (physical therapy, medication, TENS unit, chiropractor). The rheumatologist was extremely thorough--after she learned of my symptoms, she ordered a TON of tests. The lab took 13 vials of blood! I had x-rays of several areas of my body. My symptoms most closely pointed to rheumatoid arthritis. I tried several medications to no avail.



Some of my tests indicated a possible autoimmune problem, but the numbers weren't off enough to diagnose anything. After all of the appointments, tests, and medications, I was just tired of it all. My insurance rejected my MRI order and that was it for me. The rheumatologist gave me a diagnosis of fibromyalgia and said that the best things I can do for it are to get lots of sleep (I have insomnia, so that was disheartening) and a plant-based diet.

I wasn't happy with the diagnosis because a lot of doctors don't take fibromyalgia seriously--it's kind of an umbrella term to explain chronic pain with no real answer. I felt like the doctors thought the pain was just in my head or that I was exaggerating how bad it was. Because the pain was so bad, I felt like there HAD to be an answer--in my blood, in my x-rays--but I looked healthy, for the most part, on paper.

I'm not saying that fibromyalgia isn't real--I'm saying the opposite! It just sucks when you are in *real* pain but you can't prove it. And doctors want to see proof.

I prematurely assumed that I could never eat a vegan diet. I would be able to go without meat, but I couldn't imagine giving up cheese. Most of the things I cooked had some sort of dairy. Also, trying to eat vegan with a family who eats animal products seemed impossible. So, I didn't even try.

A couple of months later, in January 2022, I was just bored and looking at YouTube videos one night and you know how that rabbit hole goes... I somehow stumbled upon a documentary called 'Dominion'. It's a film that exposes how animals are treated before being slaughtered for food. I won't get into the details because I know people don't want to read that here--if you're interested, you could always look it up on your own--but I was only able to make it through half of the film. I haven't eaten a single animal product ever since.

I was very curious if this would help my chronic pain. I was extremely skeptical, but I started watching more documentaries about plant-based eating and it started to make more sense to me.

I'm not sure when it happened (maybe a month after switching to vegan), but I noticed one day that I wasn't in pain when I woke up. And when I thought about it, I couldn't remember feeling pain for a while. I started paying attention to my pain levels and they haven't been more than a 2 on the pain scale of 1-10. Getting out of bed is no longer a problem; I don't walk hunched over and I can't even remember the last time I cried due to the pain.

The pain I still deal with is in my shoulders, mostly, and I'm sure it's due to anxiety. I get big knots in my upper back near my shoulder blades and they get better or worse depending on my anxiety level. Jerry massages them for me to loosen up the muscles (which is not a "feel good" massage but an oh-my-god-that's-going-to-kill-me massage).

As far as the fibromyalgia pain that was near-crippling at times, it's all-but gone.

I have mild osteoarthritis in some joints, but that is from wear and tear due to age. It showed up on my x-rays. It sucks, but compared to the pain I was feeling before, I can certainly handle it.

I can't think of any other reason that the fibromyalgia pain would just up and leave like it did other than switching to a vegan diet. I didn't change anything else. I was extremely skeptical in the beginning, and if it wasn't for the Dominion film, I never would have tried to eat a vegan diet.

This is an old picture from a local dairy farm. I had no idea what pics to include on this post!

While the main reason for the switch was an ethical one, I feel really good about my choice for health and environmental reasons as well. I had no clue about how the meat and dairy industry affects our way of life until I started watching some documentaries about it.

I highly recommend the film 'The Game Changers' on Netflix. It is NOT a slaughterhouse video or a "scare tactics" video to try and convert people to a plant-based diet. It focuses on how a plant-based diet affects our health and performance. There are interviews with elite and even olympic athletes--from body builders to football players to runners to cyclists--who thrive on a vegan diet. It was this film that really made me believe that eating vegan could help with my pain. The film is very motivating if you're looking to eat healthier (even if you don't want to switch to a plant-based diet).

It also shows people, including a house of firefighters, who switch to eating vegan for a short period of time. They have blood drawn before and after, and the difference in some of their numbers, particularly cholesterol, was jaw-dropping. There is even a fun experiment with men to see how eating meat for just one meal can affect the number (and size!) of erections they get while sleeping (more/larger erections indicate better blood flow and cardiovascular health).

Remember how much I despised cooking? Well, now I'm starting to like it again. It's been super fun to try new recipes using methods or ingredients I'd never tried before. I've learned just how easy it can be to eat vegan once I started cooking vegan meals; there are vegan recipes out there to satisfy just about every craving one could possibly have.

While my family still eats meat and dairy, they taste the food I cook and they are very surprised by how good (most) of it is. My kids have been shocked at some of the ingredients they've eaten without realizing it--like mushrooms, which they both hate. I'm happy that they are open-minded about trying new foods. 

But anyways, back to the point of this post...

I am very happy with how a vegan diet has affected my mind and body--and it's only been a little over four months. While I still have the typical aches and pains that we get as we age, the type of chronic pain that I thought I was going to have to deal with for the rest of my life is all-but gone. I wouldn't have believed it if I didn't experience this myself. I can't say it would work for anyone with chronic pain, but it's certainly helped me!

5 comments:

  1. Katie, I had been in pain in my joints. Hands, hips, knees, etc. I started eating primarily plant based (Mediterranean) and I noticed a huge difference after a few days. If I cheat, I notice it by the next morning. I've also noticed a big improvement in my mental health as well.

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  2. Love this post! So glad (relieved!) you found something to help with the pain. Ed and I are slowly switching to a more plant-based diet. So many of my friends are in the keto trend and because I continue to struggle with my weight, I find it confusing. But the thought of the way the animals are treated keeps me thinking I need to head this direction. Ed does 99% of the cooking due to my mental health issues so I will have to get him on board. Thank you so much for this post.

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  3. I've been eating mostly plant-based for years (I basically just eat meat when other people make it for me), and it's amazing how much easier cooking is when you're not dealing with meat. No yucky fat to trim off of your protein. No need to disinfect your cutting boards, counters, etc. every time you make dinner. I rarely even need to remember to defrost anything (unless I'm using tempeh or tofu that I've frozen). It's just made everything so much easier, and I can't imagine going back to cooking meat on a regular basis. And you're right that it opens up a whole new world of flavours and ingredients!

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  4. This is super interesting!! And I'm so happy to hear eating vegan has helped with your pain!

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  5. I agree with Amanda that this is a really interesting post. It's awesome that you found a solution to your pain. It also intrigues me to think about a vegetarian or vegan diet - I don't love meat THAT much, but the problem is that I very much dislike most vegetables and beans, as in, gag reflex. You'd think I was still a child, but that's when it started, and no matter what I do, I can't seem to get myself to like them.

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