Inflammation is the body’s response to injury or infection. There are two types of inflammation: acute and chronic. Acute inflammation is a normal and helpful component of the body’s response to injury. It's immediate and temporary. Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, is persistent inflammation that has gone out of control. This ongoing inflammatory response causes progressive damage to the body that leads to a variety of diseases.
Signs & Symptoms
Signs of inflammation include redness at the site of inflammation, swelling of joints, a feeling of warmth in the joints, joint pain and stiffness. Fatigue, fever, headaches and loss of appetite can also be symptoms of inflammation. Immobility and loss of joint function can result from chronic inflammation.
Markers of inflammation can be detected in blood tests. C-reactive protein is one of the key markers. The blood markers that indicate inflammation also help predict the risk of developing certain types of diseases.
Inflammation can be caused by physical damage to a joint or a viral or bacterial infection in a joint or body tissue. The body responds to these conditions by releasing white blood cells that attack the problem.
Physical and psychological stress exacerbates inflammation because the hormones your body releases when you experience stress can damage your immune system, and inflammation is the body’s response to that damage. A University of California study published in a 2008 issue of the journal Biological Psychiatry found that a lack of sleep, often caused by stress, triggers an inflammatory response in women. Other studies have found that loneliness, anger and hostility all increase blood markers of inflammation.
The disease that comes to mind most often at the mention of inflammation is arthritis. Another condition long associated with inflammation is vasculitis, an inflammation of the blood vessels. In fact, any medical condition that ends in “itis” is associated with inflammation.
In recent years, research has linked chronic inflammation to many other medical conditions, including heart disease and diabetes. Some of the symptoms associated with these diseases, such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure and atherosclerosis, are also linked to chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammation has also been associated with Alzheimer’s disease, macular degeneration and certain types of cancer.
Physical therapy and exercise can help maintain joint function. Heat treatments are often used to reduce inflammation because heat brings more blood to the affected area, reducing pain and stiffness.
Medical treatments to reduce pain and inflammation include over-the-counter drugs such as aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen, and corticosteroids and other prescription medications.
Several lifestyle factors may have a positive effect on inflammation. The well-known Attica study from the University of Athens that linked the Mediterranean diet to a lower risk of heart disease found that this diet also reduces inflammation. A small study at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta found that yoga decreased blood markers for inflammation in people with heart disease. And several studies, including research reported in 2009 by Loma Linda University in California, have again shown the importance of a sense of humor: Patients with diabetes who viewed 30 minutes of humorous content every day in addition to taking their standard medications had much lower levels of C-reactive protein than those who only took standard medications.