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Whew! A Surprisingly Simple Solution for Aching Knees

I’m almost scared to write this. I’m afraid that I will somehow jinx the whole thing. But here goes: For the first time in about three years, my knees are pain-free without the aid of steroids. How’d I do it? I have to eat a bit of crow to admit this, but by taking the “gluten-free” path.

Ever since “gluten-free” began its ubiquitous march through restaurant menus, grocery store aisles, and advertisements, I have given the phrase an almost-automatic eye roll. Of course, I know about celiac disease and others who seriously cannot stomach gluten–my younger sister is one. But I got turned off by the way “gluten-free” was embraced as marketing tool for products that weren’t even suspect. I have to laugh whenever I see the vodkas that proudly announce their gluten freedom. Is that really going to make someone switch brands? The only ingredient my friends who drink vodka are concerned about is alcohol content.

So, call me insensitive. It was just my personal mindset. Until two months ago.

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On My Knees

For much of my life I was a runner, but a sciatic problem at the age of 49 led me to hang up my running shoes. I took up swimming and biking instead. But it seems all those years pounding the pavement had taken their toll. At the age of 58 or so, I started experiencing severe joint pain in the inner part of one knee, then both knees. I got steroid shots so I could continue hiking, skiing, dancing, and showing NextTribe travelers cities around the world.

I got steroid shots so I could continue hiking, skiing, dancing, and showing NextTribe travelers cities around the world.

In May, I got my third round of steroid shots–right before I left on a month of NextTribe travel to Paris, Italy, and Portugal. But this time the steroids didn’t work. I gritted my teeth as I roamed the Canal St. Martin neighborhood of Paris, the streets of Perugia in Umbria, and the Alfama district of Lisbon. Sometimes the pain was so bad that it kept me awake at night–even though I use a special heart shaped pillow to slip between my knees as I lay on my side. The idea is to cradle the poor buggers in softness, but to little avail.

I was certain knee replacements were in my future–and I often thought the sooner the better.

When I got back to the States, I visited a proper orthopedic doctor, who through X-rays, listening to my manifest knees noises, and some palpating around the knobby things, determined that I didn’t have arthritis. There was no bone-to-bone grinding. She said I would need an MRI to be sure, but she suspected inflamed ligaments, particularly the medial collateral ligament (MCL). She thought it was odd that I didn’t remember any particular injury to either knee. “Just age,” I said laughing.

Yes, I was relieved to know I didn’t have arthritis, but when I asked what could be done about my swelling ligaments, she shrugged. She mentioned PRP injections, a process where they take your blood spin it in a centrifuge and then re-inject. The idea is that the spinning will increase the amount of platelets in the blood, which will aid healing. “But,” she added, “research doesn’t back up the anecdotal evidence.” A medical study she directed me to says as much. Instead, she advised me to get an ointment called Voltaren (the label of which confusingly, since I don’t have arthritis, proclaims its effectiveness against arthritis). Another one of her suggestions was to take three Advils a day (uh, liver suicide, I believe) and put ice on my knees four times a day. She also said that after an MRI, physical therapy could be prescribed.

Standing on My Own

I immediately tried to schedule an MRI, but between my travel schedule and the obstacle course of hoops that the medical system requires now, I still don’t have an appointment for one. But when I returned from a NextTribe trip to Santa Fe in mid September, I realized I had to take some action instead of waiting for doctors to provide an answer–especially since I’d been told there wasn’t much of a solution anyhow if I indeed had the inflamed ligaments.

If inflammation was the issue, what could I do to bring it down, I wondered, besides OD-ing on Advil and sitting around with ice packs, which didn’t seem to help that much anyhow. I had inflammation on the brain–not literally–and at some point, it clicked with me that I’d read that this was one of the main issues people had with gluten. I Googled, “Does gluten…” and Google supplied the most common ending to that search: “cause inflammation.” OK, I’m obviously far behind the general populace here.

The medical report said that this inflammation may result in widespread pain, including in your joints and muscles.

First result: “Gluten exposure may cause inflammation in those with gluten sensitivity. This inflammation may result in widespread pain, including in your joints and muscles.” Joints! Joints! The knees are joints.

I read on. This from an orthopedic surgeon writing in Arthritis-Health: “Medical experts have begun to acknowledge the possible connection between gluten and non-pathologic joint pain—joint pain that is not explained by disease. A growing body of research supports this idea.” That’s me, I wanted to shout.

After reporting that non-celiac people could benefit by avoiding gluten, Medical News Today, added, “Some of their symptoms–such as abdominal pain and irregular bowel movements, headaches, joint pain, and eczema–rapidly improve when eating foods devoid of gluten.”

By the time I’d made it through medical journal reports containing lots of acronyms and unpronouncables–such as duodenum, intraepithelial and transglutaminase, I decided to kiss gluten goodbye.

So Long Bread

I thought I wouldn’t have too much trouble going gluten free since I already eat a lot of salads and wasn’t ever a huge bread person. I’m careful about carbs because of my slowing metabolism, and I have long recognized the dangers of that bread basket left on the table before every restaurant meal. But I did enjoy a tomato, cheese and avocado sandwich regularly, and pasta was always a quick dinner if I was in a pinch.

Another thing: I’m already a pescatarian, which means that cutting out a whole other category of food was likely to push me into the picky eater category. You know, the one who asks at every meal, “What kind of flour is used for breading the shrimp?” or “Could you take out the croutons.” Ugh. I decided to add chicken back into my repertoire just to give myself a little more leeway in the menu department. I didn’t want to be a pill about my diet, but my strongest urge was to stop my knees from hurting so much.

I didn’t want to be a pill about my diet, but my strongest urge was to stop my knees from hurting so much.

I didn’t have too much trouble when I was at home–smoothies, salads and grilled fish, and my own grazing platters of nuts, apples, cheese and Mary’s Gone Crackers crackers. But going out was a bit harder, since I had to study the menu a little more carefully and had to resist all the lovely, aromatic dishes being brought by the table or set down in front of a fellow diner. I came to appreciate Poke Bowls with rice, Indian food, and a Keto favorite: a pallaird of chicken topped with a salad. The thinly pounded chicken breast took the place of a carb, such as pasta.

Harder still was traveling–finding something to grab on the go in an airport or on a long drive. I packed my own food–gluten-free cereal bars or trail mix, and rejoiced that Starbucks (and other chains) offer protein packs with a boiled egg, cheese, and a fruit.

Does Gluten Cause Joint Pain? The Cobblestone Test

By the time I headed off to San Miguel de Allende for our Dia de Los Muertos trip, I had been on the gluten-free path for about six weeks. I hadn’t noticed a lot of difference in my pain level, which was a bit frustrating, but my partner Mike advised patience. “These things can take months,” he said.

Toward the end of the nine days tromping around the cobblestone streets of San Miguel de Allende, I had another realization.

In Mexico, I did some happy eating–partly because there are so many superlative restaurants in San Miguel, but also because corn tortillas are so ubiquitous. The menus were pretty wide open for me with the culture’s fondness for corn over wheat. My time in Mexico eating huevos rancheros on corn tortillas made me realize how bread/gluten heavy most breakfasts menus are in the States.

Toward the end of the nine days in San Miguel I had another realization. After many days of tromping around on cobblestone streets–sometimes as many as 18,000 steps in one day, no joke–my knees weren’t hurting. Normally, so much walking would make my eyes tear up with pain. But seriously–nothing. Pain free! I rejoiced and thanked God that the scales on my eyes had fallen away and I could see the truth about gluten and me.

I am now a committed and satisfied anti-glutonian. You won’t catch me tempted by that croissant or drooling over chocolate chip cookies–even though chocolate chip cookies are my favorite treat in the whole world. I know the price and it’s simply not worth it.

I’m knocking on wood that my knocky knees can cavort happily for years to come.

Read More: Got Knee Pain? Check Out These 3 Non-Surgical Solutions

By Jeannie Ralston


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