December 7, 2022

For some, holiday season eating choices can be painful

Christmas charcuterie table scene against a dark wood background. Assortment of cheese and meat appetizers. Christmas tree, wreath and candy cane arrangements.

Madison, Wis. – The holiday season means a lot more opportunities to eat, but for some people the impact of those extra meals and traditional dishes can be painful.

In the months of November and December, the UW Health Pain Management Clinic typically sees an increase in the number of patients seeking treatment for pain related to diet, according to Dr. Alaa Abd-Elsayed, medical director, UW Health Pain Management Services, and associate professor of anesthesiology, University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

Abd-Elsayed sees about 40 patients each week, and this time of year about 30 percent of them are related to diet, he said. In the summer months, that number is about 5 percent.

People often eat more often during the holidays while visiting family and friends, and combined with a reduction in physical activity in the late fall and winter, this can lead to weight gain as well as inflammation, both of which can cause pain, Abd-Elsayed said.

“Weight gain for some can lead to excess pressure on joints, disks and bones, which can be painful,” he said. “In other cases, foods that cause inflammation can exacerbate another inflammatory condition like arthritis, or they can further inflame already achy joints.”

In some cases, people stop taking medications thinking that the medication caused the weight gain rather than the dietary changes, leading to pain from discontinuing the medication, Abd-Elsayed said.

In most cases, the patients that pass through the Pain Management Clinic can be treated by making corrections to their diets combined with lifestyle changes or physical therapy, among other non-medication-related remedies to reduce or eliminate the pain.

“The good news is this pain is reversible,” Abd-Elsayed said. “And changes to diet and lifestyle are things that can help our patients for many holiday seasons to come.”

The Pain Management Clinic employs a holistic approach to helping relieve pain without using drugs or medical procedures, including working with a nutritionist and physical therapist to make impactful changes to diet and promote proper exercise and lifestyle changes.

But, before getting to the point of needing medical care, people can implement a healthy eating strategy of their own around the holidays, Abd-Elsayed said.

During the holidays, people should remember to practice mindful eating, and to also eat foods that are connected with reduced inflammation, like olive oil, certain fatty fish like salmon and tuna, nuts like almonds and pistachios, green leafy vegetables, sweet potatoes and fruit, like strawberries, blueberries and raspberries, he said.

People should also avoid foods that are associated with inflammation such as highly processed foods, including lunch meat, bacon, white bread and rice, and fast food, as well as fried food and soft drinks, according to Abd-Elsayed.

“These simple changes can keep you pain-free through the new year, and maybe even help you down the path to a healthier 2023,” he said.