Chronic pain and Keto

My keto journey is one of the defining stories of my life. These days I feel like it's one of the main things I have to talk about, and I'm not ashamed of that. I love this lifestyle, it's changed everything for me and I want to share that with everyone. I'm proud of what I've accomplished and I want to help others who want the same thing.

One of the other defining stories of my life so far has been the aftermath of a car accident I was involved in. For the last 7 and a half years I have suffered chronic pain in my neck, upper back and shoulder blades. There is barely an aspect of my life that hasn’t been impacted by those few minutes, my health, my ability to sleep, my ability to work, my social life.

I can’t tell you about how keto has helped me to deal with my chronic pain without giving you some background behind what happened and what my day to day life is like. I’ll start by saying that I’m incredibly lucky. People look at the pictures of my car, hear what happened and say they can’t believe I walked out of that. So many people have it a lot worse than me. I can still work and I can still function pretty well, but that doesn’t mean life with chronic pain is easy.

On the 23rd of May 2011 at around 1am, I was driving home from a night out with friends. I hadn’t had a thing to drink, I was completely sober. I was driving down a 2-lane road in the right-hand lane, and I felt a bang. I didn’t know what was happening, but my car was surrounded by sparks, I couldn’t see anything but this cloud and bright lights, I tried to stop, but I couldn’t. I pulled my handbrake and eventually came to a stop. That’s most of what I remember. I vaguely remember hitting my head on both the roof and the back against the headrest and I think my knees hit the dashboard. I just sat in the car, in shock with no clue what happened. Someone approached the car and asked if I was ok, and helped me out. Witnesses filled me in with the details, a taxi was driving in the lane next to me and a speeding car tried to drive between us. They say they think he was doing 200km an hour in a 60km zone. My back-passenger wheel was ripped off, tearing through the metal that holds it on like it was a piece of paper. With the loss of my wheel came the loss of my brakes. The only thing that stopped me was the suspension dragging in the bitumen, causing the sparks surrounding my car.

My car after my car accident. Note the giant holes in the rim of the tire

When the ambulance arrived, they asked if I was ok. I said I thought I was. It was a busy night because it was raining, so they left it at that. Given I was in shock, I didn’t realise the extent of my injuries. That night I noticed both of my knees had swollen to about 4 times their size, and I had cuts on both knees from where they hit the dash. By the morning when the shock finally wore off, my back and neck were aching and I knew something wasn’t right. I went to the doctor the next day and they said that was to be expected and that it would just take time to heal. Weeks went by and things weren’t improving. After a long, hard fight I had an MRI scan which showed 2 bulging discs in my cervical spine (neck) and 2 in my thoracic spine (upper back). Along with that I have nerve damage and spinal cord compression. There was a long period there where the feeling in my right thumb was not great and it was often numb. My ankle was also very sore and I couldn’t drive for very long without extensive pain.

In the days and weeks after the accident, I couldn’t stand, sit or walk for more than about 10 minutes at a time without being in a lot of pain. Nothing was every comfortable. Even sleep wasn’t a respite as I would wake up many many times a night in pain. When I returned to work after only 3 days off because I was told I was fine, I couldn’t make it through a full day. All day every day was a struggle but I would try and make it through 4 hours or so, sitting there with my head in my hand because I literally couldn’t even support the weight of my head without being in a lot of pain. I hated taking painkillers but I really didn’t have much choice, I was either in pain or feeling spaced out. I would never want to go through those early days again. I also couldn’t drive for more than about 20 minutes for some time. I couldn’t lift things, I couldn’t cook because I couldn’t be in the position required to chop anything or have my arms out in front of me to cook. My muscles were spasming while I slept and I would wake up thinking I was having a heart attack because of the pain around my ribs and chest. In amongst all of this I moved from Adelaide to Sydney. 6 weeks after the car accident I had to move my whole life, find new doctors and new people to treat me.

Very slowly things started to improve and I could sit and stand for longer periods. I was seeing a chiro and a physio. I had constant appointments. I was also doing hydrotherapy. I was able to do more things, be out with friends for longer, or sit through a movie, although even to this day I constantly fidget because it’s impossible to get comfortable. Even still going out for dinner is a chore because leaning in to hear people talk across a table puts an incredible amount of strain on my back.

I have been going to physio between weekly and every 4 weeks for 7 years now. I have been doing Pilates for 6 years. These things help me to function and to be able to go to work every day. Getting through a full day at work prior to starting keto was still a near on impossible task. From about 2pm every day I would have to will myself to make it to 4pm or 5pm. It was a constant battle. I spent a lot of time with my head resting in my hand because I still couldn’t hold my head up on my own. I still couldn’t lift my own suitcase into the overhead compartment on a plane, and plane travel was agony, even for the short flight home to Adelaide. I couldn’t do anything after work, it was weekends or nothing for me. Cooking on a weeknight was out, so I would have to do it all on the weekend. Then I would also have to do the cleaning but I would need breaks in between each thing I did, like half an hour rest between cleaning the kitchen and vacuuming, then another half an hour break before I could do the bathroom. Sometimes things would be not too bad and then other times I would have massive flare ups and not be able to do anything but sit on the couch for two days.

I discovered a few months back that I have significantly impaired hot/cold sensation in my back because of nerve damage resulting from the car accident. The physio applied deep heat to my neck, upper and lower back. From the neck until about half way down my back I couldn’t even feel it, but as it moved further down my back it got warmer, and then so hot I could barely even stand it. I had thought this was the case for some time, but this was a cool experiment to prove it.

Sleep, sleep is one of the big ones. Sleep would help my body reset a little, and I would often wake up not feeling as awful because my muscles had time to relax, but also, I hated (and still do hate) sleep. Sleep didn’t feel restful, when you’re waking up in pain 15 times a night, and you can’t get back to sleep, or off to sleep, because you can’t get comfortable. Even to this day sleep is difficult for me because I’m constantly uncomfortable. My back and shoulder blades burn, I get cramps in the muscles, my neck has sharp pain coursing through it.

If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say maybe if I could just lose weight it would ease the tension in my back, I’d be rich. People often think that weight loss is the answer to back problems, but I can tell you that wasn’t the case for me. I have lost over 60kg and my back still hurts as much as ever. None of these things have gone away. But I said keto has helped me with my chronic pain, right? Well it has. Not so much with the pain, but with my mental clarity and my ability to push through the pain. If needed I can cook on a weeknight (nothing gourmet because my body is still fairly exhausted after work, but I won’t starve now). I don’t have to stop between tasks when cleaning, I can do it all in one hit. I don’t have to ask for help to put my bag in the overhead luggage compartment on a plane. The level of actual pain is still the same but I am able to deal with it better and work through it. This has made such a difference in my life. I can also think a lot more clearly; the chronic pain brain fog has significantly lifted. Sitting at dinner for hours still isn’t much fun for me. Plenty of things are still challenging, like sitting on a couch that isn’t as supportive as mine, certain exercise I can’t do, and if I try to do too much in a day (e.g. cook more than say 2 meals), I will have a flare up, but it is much less frequent than it used to be. My quality of life has improved immeasurably. Sleep is still an issue, I wake up probably 5 to 10 times a night in pain or with muscle spasms, but I can function much better on a lack of sleep now.

Keto has also significantly reduced the inflammation in my body. Until I started Keto, the muscles in my back were so tight and tense, like a rock. Every little thing would set me off with a flare up and I would be in agony for hours to days. Within weeks of starting keto this started to ease. My physio was able to notice a difference in the tension in my muscles and was able to start trying different things. He was able to start putting more pressure on my back when he did massage. Now he is even able to use his elbows to try and release the knots. Sure, there are many many times when I am cursing him and calling him all kinds of names, because it hurts like hell and some of the knots in my back are probably close to a cm high, but it is such an improvement.

You may question whether this is actually related to keto, but there isn’t a doubt in my mind. I’ve been keto for 20 months now, and it was within 2 weeks of starting I noticed for myself and the physio noticed the physical changes in me. One of the key parts of keto is eliminating inflammatory foods from your diet, and this seems to have been what has turned everything around for me. Maybe the weight loss has helped my pain a little, but the changes wouldn’t have been so immediate if that was the case. My pain also would have decreased more than it has given the significant decrease in my weight. Regardless of this I am so grateful for the role keto has had in improving my quality of life and in allowing me to function at a much higher level, therefore enjoying my life much more, despite my chronic pain.

If you suffer from chronic pain, in my experience I would say what have you got to lose by giving this way of eating a go. Check out LowCarb World on Facebook for heaps of info on how to do Keto and have great success.


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