Can Allergies Contribute to Chronic Pain?

Your body is an incredibly complex network of systems, organs and tissue that can interact in many surprising ways. This is especially true if you have multiple health conditions that include chronic pain. Many other physiological components may be adversely affected by a pain condition which is why allergies can affect the severity of pain symptoms.

It is obvious that something like an allergy which can affect respiration, immune responses and epidermal tissue would also impact an underlying pain condition, but many patients and even some medical professionals overlook this relationship. There are many ways that allergies can worsen your chronic pain condition, so it is important that you discuss your allergies with your physician to develop a strategy to minimize their impact.

What Is an Allergy?

Allergies are essentially overactive immune systems. Normally, your immune system should only react to harmful pathogens like viruses and bacteria, but in people with allergies, there is an immune response to benign materials in food or the environment. This response involves the release of histamine which produces inflammation, runny nose and itchy eyes.

It is possible to build up a tolerance to allergens, but this is an involved and lengthy process. It starts with identifying the cause of the allergy followed by repeated exposure to tiny amounts of the allergen until your body no longer reacts to it. However, since most people only have a mild or moderate response to allergies, they usually only treat the symptoms with readily available medications.

Seasonal Allergies

When most people think of allergies, the first thing that comes to mind is seasonal allergies.  Depending on what substance you are allergic to, you may experience allergy symptoms in the spring, summer or autumn. These symptoms may include

  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Watery or bloodshot eyes
  • Itchy skin
  • Congested sinuses
  • Headaches
  • Coughing

There are many triggers for seasonal allergies including grass or ragweed pollen. If you suffer from seasonal allergies, you may also be allergic to other compounds like mold or pet dander. Depending on the severity of your allergy, you may experience only mild or more disruptive symptoms.

There are several ways that you can limit exposure to seasonal allergies:

  • Avoidance—it may be difficult to completely wall yourself off from all allergens at certain times of the year, but you can take steps to minimize your exposure. You should try to remain indoors as much as possible with the windows shut.  Instead of using ceiling fans which can stir up pollen, use the air conditioner with a high efficiency filter. If you must go outside, wear a dust mask.
  • Medications—there are a wide array of over-the-counter and prescription drugs that can counteract allergy symptoms. These include antihistamines and decongestants as well as steroidal nasal sprays.
  • Allergy shots—For particularly severe allergies, your doctor may recommend allergy shots that strengthen your immune system over time. Allergy shots contain a minute amount of the material that you are allergic to. Eventually, you will build up an immunity to the allergen.
  • Sublingual immunotherapy—SLIT works on the same principle as allergy shots, but instead of shots, the allergen is introduced under the tongue. Over the course of the treatment, you should build up an immunity and symptoms should subside.

Food Allergies

Food allergies are also common conditions in which your immune system may react to certain ingested substances. In many cases, this reaction may be mild, but unlike seasonal allergies, there is the potential for a fatal reaction known as anaphylaxis. The most common food allergies include milk, eggs, nuts, shellfish, wheat and soy.

There are many possible symptoms including

  • Itchy or tingling mouth
  • Hives
  • Swelling of lips, face or throat
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea
  • Dizziness or fainting

A severe reaction like anaphylaxis may produce constriction of the airways, drop in blood pressure or loss of consciousness. If you or someone with you experiences any of these symptoms, get emergency medical care immediately.

How Allergies Affect Chronic Pain

Many of the ways that allergies can impact chronic pain are fairly obvious, but some may be less recognizable. It should be apparent that any more stress on the body can make pain symptoms more intense, but it is not as easy to identify why that is. For one thing, allergies place a greater burden on the immune system which plays a key role in inflammation and many pain conditions like rheumatoid arthritis; in turn, you are likely to feel more worn out during allergy season because your immune system is overworked.

Another way that allergies intensify chronic pain is by producing additional aches.  For example, allergies often cause sneezing which can produce or worsen neck pain, headaches or back pain. Although most people only have mild responses to allergies, anyone who is already struggling with severe pain may find even minimal aches an unbearable addition.

People who react strongly to seasonal or food allergens may feel utterly miserable if they must suffer through an allergic reaction as well as a pain episode. One key example is how allergies promote inflammation throughout the body which can be especially problematic for chronic pain patients who are already struggling with inflammation related to their pain condition. This includes many kinds of back pain conditions and arthritis sufferers.

It is also important to consider the fatigue factor. If you are already burdened with a chronic pain condition along with a job and family responsibilities, then you are probably experiencing some level of exhaustion. Allergies can compound this fatigue by adding another set of medical symptoms that interfere with your life and must be managed.

Finally, allergies also present a serious emotional and mental burden that can weaken the mindset of people already overwhelmed with a terrible affliction. You should understand that the neural pathways that govern pain overlap in large part with those involving anxiety and depression. So if you are hit with allergies that emotionally devastate you, you will often experience worsening pain symptoms at the same time.

Article written by: Dr. Robert Moghim – CEO/Founder Colorado Pain Care

M.D. Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal views of Robert Moghim, M.D. and do not necessarily represent and are not intended to represent the views of the company or its employees.  The information contained in this article does not constitute medical advice, nor does reading or accessing this information create a patient-provider relationship.  Comments that you post will be shared with all visitors to this page. The comment feature is not governed by HIPAA and you should not post any of your private health information.