Everybody knows what inflammation is, right? For example, when your arthritis acts up you know it’s chronic inflammation that’s at the heart of your pain. Or say you twist your knee, or get an infection, inflammation is sure to follow.
And when you’ve got something on your body that’s inflamed, your goal should always be to reduce the inflammation so you can heal.
But the truth is, not everything about inflammation is so cut and dry. There’s a lot more to this important process than most folks think. And some of what you believe about inflammation may be more rooted in myth than reality.
Separating inflammation myth from reality
So let’s set the record straight today by weeding out inflammation fiction from inflammation fact, once and for all.
1. Fiction: Inflammation is inflammation.
Fact: There are actually two types of inflammation: acute and chronic.
Acute inflammation is the swelling that happens when you stub your toe, sprain a joint, or get strep throat. It’s your body’s immediate reaction to injury or illness.
Chronic inflammation is something else entirely. Chronic inflammation is less obvious and may last for years. It can be triggered by acute inflammation that isn’t addressed, and turns into chronic inflammation. Or it could be that your immune system has gone into overdrive.
2. Fiction: Inflammation is always bad.
Fact: This one is half true.
Chronic inflammation is bad. Sure, if discovered, it could give your doctor a heads up that there’s a problem. But what chronic inflammation is doing to your health is bad (more on that in a moment). Which is why you may hear medical folks refer to it as “an unhealthy inflammatory response.”
On the other hand, acute inflammation isn’t always bad. Your body responds to an injury or illness with acute inflammation to trigger the healing process. In a “healthy inflammatory response“ your body is flooded with white blood cells and other substances that help protect you against foreign organisms and fight them off, so you can heal.
3. Fiction: So acute inflammation is always good.
Fact: Nope, that’s not true either. There are definitely times when you want to decrease acute inflammation.
For example if a fever gets too high (fever is system-wide inflammation), an injury gets too swollen or swelling causes too much pain and discomfort, reducing inflammation can be a good idea.
In fact, if acute inflammation is raging out of control and left unchecked for too long it can even evolve into chronic inflammation, bringing with it its own health issues. Inflammation is definitely a balancing act.
4. Fiction: Chronic inflammation is the same thing as arthritis.
Fact: Some types of arthritis are caused by misdirected inflammation. But arthritis is far from the only disease linked to chronic inflammation.
Experts now believe that chronic inflammation is at the heart of just about every major disease. Researchers say it can cause cancer, arthritis, heart disease, even allergies, just to a name a few. And while we’re still unraveling the connection between chronic inflammation and other diseases including Crohn’s, asthma, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, Parkinson’s and more (it’s a chicken or egg question) we know that inflammation plays a major role in each of them.
5. Fiction: The only symptoms of inflammation are swelling and pain.
Fact: Swelling and pain are symptoms of acute inflammation, but they aren’t the only symptoms.
Redness, heat, joint stiffness, loss of joint function as well as a number of “flu” like symptoms including fever, chills, headaches, fatigue, muscle stiffness and loss of appetite are all fairly common with acute inflammation too.
With chronic inflammation, however, you may have totally different symptoms such as shortness of breath or high blood pressure, for example. Or chronic inflammation may not have any obvious symptoms at all. In fact, for many folks their first “symptom” of chronic inflammation is a diagnosis of heart disease, cancer, or some other serious disease.
Inflammation isn’t as simple as it may seem. But understanding how it can be both friend and foe can help us manage inflammation to get and stay healthy.