The word inflammation comes from the Latin word inflammationem, which means “a setting on fire.” Certainly anyone who has experienced the feelings of heat, redness, swelling, pain and burning that makes the origin of this word an accurate description. But what exactly is inflammation and how can it hurt—as well as help—your body?
At its most basic definition, inflammation is the body’s natural reaction to an injury or infection—its attempt to heal itself. So, while we generally have negative connotations to the word, we are nevertheless fortunate that the body has this built-in immune system in place to recognize damaged cells, irritants and pathogens to heal an injury or fight an infection. Though inflammation may be uncomfortable, it is the body’s biological response to remove a harmful affect on the body. Without it, infections, wounds, and other damage to tissue couldn’t heal.
“Inflammation overall is an immune response,” says Kim Kulp, registered dietician at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital. “It’s your body’s way of trying to fix any foreign invader, or some damage to the body,” adds Kulp, who is also the owner of her own private practice, Health Tastes Great, seeing patients in both Novato and Mill Valley.
Generally, once the injury or infection is healed, the inflammation should stop. This normal process is usually identified as acute inflammation. However, when inflammation does not dissipate, but lingers in the body long term it becomes chronic inflammation and can lead to a variety of other diseases.
“Acute and chronic [inflammation] is just a descriptor of the chronicity, or the time, that the inflammation has taken place in your body,” says Michael Yang, M.D., Santa Rosa-based Summit Pain Alliance, a leader in pain management in Northern California, which provides cutting edge technologies, pain management therapies, and advancements in pain relief, both acute and chronic. “Generally, in the field of pain management, we demarcate that at about six months. It’s not an exact science, but we have to draw the line somewhere, so it’s generally accepted that anything beyond six months is considered chronic pain. Inflammation is exactly that. So, if you’ve had an inflammatory response in a certain body part and if it’s been there longer than six months, it’s considered chronic.”
A silent precursor to disease
Unfortunately, chronic inflammation is not only uncomfortable or painful, but more and more research shows a link to a variety of diseases. According to Harvard Medical School, “…research on inflammation has created a shift in medical thinking. For two millennia, it has been viewed mainly as a necessary, even beneficial, response to illness or injury. But now both observational studies and laboratory research are indicating that inflammation can be more of a bane than boon, the common, causative factor in many diseases.” Research now shows inflammation may be a common underlying cause of many major degenerative diseases, including coronary artery disease, diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer’s.
“Inflammation itself can be harmful to the body, even though it’s the body’s way of bringing in the healing factors,” says Yang. “If it’s chronic and it’s constantly bringing in these inflammatory cytokines that cause swelling and redness and pain, all of that is just the body trying to heal itself. But if it’s there on a chronic basis, that in itself can also cause deterioration. In medical terms, anything with –itis at the end of it means inflammation of whatever is in that base word. So, arthritis is inflammation of the joints, appendicitis is inflammation of the appendix, and bronchitis is inflammation of the bronchials. But of course, chronic bronchitis is terrible for you and arthritis—as it gets worse—causes giant swollen joints, which can cause terrible deformities. Chronic inflammation can cause a lot of damage to your body.”
Alarmingly, some inflammation that occurs deep inside the body, such as in an internal organ where there may not be any sensory nerve endings, may not have any visible or noticeable signs that make it immediately obvious what is happening in the body.
“Eventually something will go wrong,” warns Kulp. “You’re not going to be feeling well, or there will be more fatigue, or you might have some symptoms of these diseases. There isn’t just one sign of inflammation.”
Other symptoms that may eventually become present include abdominal or chest pain, fever, joint pain, or a rash, but some of these indicators can seem mild enough to not necessarily seek medical attention. However, today there are certain blood tests that show if an inflammatory process is going on.
“There are parts of the body that have little sensation,” says Yang. “You can have inflammation that is just circulating in the blood stream. You can have inflammation of your bowels, like irritable bowel syndrome and chronic ulcerative colitis—those are bowel inflammations that can wreak havoc on the body, but you don’t feel it until you have a stomach cramp. But the inflammation is there all the time.”