What is inflammation?
Inflammation is a normal process in the body that helps us heal. Think of inflammation as the body’s natural response to protect itself against harm; like engine lights on your car’s dashboard. These signals illuminate when they detect a problem in your car. The solution is to find out where the problem is and not just cover up the warning sign. The same thing can be said about inflammation. It’s the body’s way of telling you that something more is going on that requires attention. Some inflammation is good, however too much is often bad. The goal is to recognize when inflammation is simply doing its job, and when there could potentially be a larger problem.
Most of us are familiar with the acute inflammation we experience when we stub a toe or perhaps cut a finger. This is the redness, warmth, swelling, and pain around tissues and joints that occurs in response to an injury. Our body’s immune system sends an army of white blood cells to the injured area, creating visible redness and swelling. This raises the blood flow to the area of injury or infection. It can cause redness and warmth. This protective process may trigger nerves and cause pain. This natural process is also the same if your body encounters bacteria or a virus like with a cold or flu. In these examples, the body’s acute inflammation reaction is essential—without it, injuries could fester and simple infections can become much more serious.
Acute inflammation is a short-lived, protective response. When the body recognizes something as foreign it activates the inflammatory system to respond and take action. Intermittent bouts of inflammation are what help keep us healthy and most of the time, you don’t need to worry too much about acute inflammation. You may apply cold compresses to reduce swelling. Usually, a short period of time is required to let the inflammation help with healing. However, problems arise when inflammation turns into chronic, or long-term inflammation.
Chronic inflammation is when the inflammation response is too high and lingers for a long time. The immune system continues to pump out white blood cells and chemical messengers that prolong the process. The body perceives it is under constant attack and so the immune system keeps fighting accordingly. This prolonged response can cause damage to healthy tissues in the body as white blood cells end up attacking nearby healthy tissues and organs.
Chronic inflammation can be more difficult to address in that it is often “invisible” and doesn’t present in the way acute inflammation does. Chronic inflammation has been linked to heart disease, diabetes, cancer, certain types of arthritis, and bowel diseases like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. It can also be triggered by genetic and lifestyle factors like diet, stress, lack of exercise and exposure to environmental toxins (ie: second-hand smoke).
Symptoms of inflammation include:
- A swollen joint that may be warm to the touch
- Joint pain
- Joint stiffness
- A joint that doesn’t work as well as it should
Inflammation may also cause flu-like symptoms including:
- Fatigue/loss of energy
- Loss of appetite
- Muscle stiffness
Inflammation and MSK Health
The cascade of events associated with inflammation is closely linked with the musculoskeletal (MSK) system. Inflammation plays a critical role in the healing of all MSK tissues and any disruption or extension of this stage of healing may lead to complications. For example, inflammation is the first stage of fracture healing in a broken bone. If this stage is blocked or interfered with, bone healing does not progress.
How Are Inflammatory Diseases Diagnosed?
Your doctor will ask about your medical history and do a physical exam, focusing on:
- A detailed health history
- The pattern of painful joints and whether there are signs of inflammation
- Your doctor may also include imagining (x-rays) and blood tests for specific signs of inflammation.
Your treatment plan will depend on several things, including your type of inflammation or disease, your age, the medications you’re taking and your overall health. Overall, the goals of treatment are to:
- Avoid or change activities that aggravate pain
- Keep joint movement and muscle strength through chiropractic and physiotherapy
- Lower stress on joints by using braces, splints, or canes as needed
- Where appropriate, your family physician may prescribe pain medications and anti-inflammatory drugs to ease pain
- Correct, control, or slow down the disease process
The best approach to chronic inflammation is prevention. Things you can do today include quitting smoking and limiting alcohol consumption. Maintaining a healthy weight, managing stress levels, getting adequate sleep, and regular exercise are also key. Diet can play a strong role in the level of inflammation in your body. Some foods increase inflammation and other foods work to reduce inflammation.
If you have questions about your MSK health, visit your chiropractor or contact us at CURAVITA. Our model of patient-centred care in a collaborative multi-disciplinary environment will ensure you get the right care, at the right time and in the right place.