Inflammation and Swelling

Inflammation is the body’s protective response to eliminate and neutralize foreign invaders and promote tissue repair.  Inflammation is not the same as infection, although the two sometimes occur at the same time.  Infection is the body’s response to a foreign microbe, whereas inflammation is a generalized response to tissue damage.

Signs of inflammation are remembered by the mnemonic PRISH, which stands for Pain, Redness, Immobility, Swelling, and Heat.  The heat and redness are a result of increased blood flow to the area, and swelling due to the plasma and white blood cells.  The nerve endings in the area are painfully hypersensitive due to the increased release of chemicals in the blood and plasma in that area.

Chilblains, a medical condition resulting from exposure to cold. Redness and swelling–signs of inflammation–are readily apparent. / Photo available in the public domain

Acute Inflammation

There are two categories of inflammation–acute and chronic.  Acute inflammation is the body’s initial response to a stimulus, which is activated by damage to the cells of the body’s tissues.   When damaged, the cells release chemical signals which bring plasma and white blood cells to the area.  I have seen this in action after spraining my ankle while running varsity cross country in college.  I watched my ankle swell up to the size of a softball in a matter of minutes.  It was extremely painful (I ended up needing surgery) but also weirdly fascinating to watch it swell.  In the case of an ankle sprain, the ligaments are stretched beyond normal length, which causes damage to the cells of the ligament.  The body responds, bringing plasma and white blood cells to the area, which creates a swelling response.  Besides trauma and general bodily injury, other stimuli that cause acute inflammation could be: burns, frostbite, foreign materials like dirt, debris and splinters, biological infection, stress, toxins, and even alcohol.  

Acute inflammation lasts for a few hours up to a few days, if your body is healthy, and then starts resolving.  

Post ankle surgery hiking / Photo by, circa 2004

Chronic Inflammation

Chronic inflammation occurs when the source of inflammation is not resolved, and can persist for weeks, months, and years.  Chronic inflammation can be caused by ongoing exposure to a stimulus, or the body’s failure to eliminate a stimulus.  Chronic inflammation also sends white blood cells and plasma to the area, except the white blood cells of a chronic inflammatory response are different than those of an acute inflammatory response.  The white blood cells of a chronic inflammatory response destroy tissue and can potentially cause damage to healthy tissue of the body.

Types of Chronic Inflammation

Acne is a specific form of inflammation.  Pus is inflammation, as it is a collection of white blood cells, dead cells, and fluid.  This type of inflammation is not specific to acne as pus, and pus filled pockets called abscesses, can be found throughout the body.  

Arthritis is a term that describes chronic inflammation of the joints and surrounding tissues.  The inflammation can eventually lead to a breakdown of tissues within the joint, making it extremely painful to move.  

Autoimmune diseases occur when the immune response is heightened and starts to attack itself, which causes chronic inflammation.  Celiac disease and inflammatory bowel disease, like Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis, are just a few of the 80+ autoimmune diseases currently identified.  

Some cancers have been linked to chronic inflammation.  To put it simply, chronic inflammation brings a specific protein, named p100, to the area.  When there is too much p100, there is an overdevelopment of tissue that is unchecked, creating the cancer [1].  

Depression has been linked to chronic inflammation.  During chronic inflammation, there are chemicals floating around the body that your brain interprets as “sick.”  Your brain thinks you are sick, and consequently puts the body in “sick mode.”  Physical symptoms of being sick–such as lethargy, headaches, loss of appetite–often overlap with depression.  

Swollen gums can sometimes be due to something specifically in your mouth or gum tissue.  Other times, swollen gums can be a sign of a systemic chronic inflammation.  Medications, side effects from chemo, and hormonal imbalance all list swollen gums as a side effect.  

Myopathies can be caused by chronic inflammation.  Myopathy is a broad category which is defined as “a disease of the muscular tissue.”  An example of a myopathy potentially caused by chronic inflammation is plantar fasciitis.  

Anti-Inflammatory Diets

Anti-inflammatory diets have become a recent fad.  While little hard evidence exists that the diet has a physiologic effect on inflammation, the anti-inflammatory diet has healthy principles.  Eat less red meat, less sweets, and more vegetables.  There is also a recommendation to eat more Omega 3 fatty acids.  On a cellular level, the omega 3 fatty acids act as an anti-inflammatory agent similarly to aspirin.  The theory behind an anti-inflammatory diet is that it will reduce systemic, chronic inflammation which will in turn promote better health and well-being.  

Avocados are one of my favorite anti-inflammatory foods / Photo available via CC0


[1] Seethaler, Sherry. “Molecular Link between Inflammation and Cancer Discovered.” Molecular Link between Inflammation and Cancer Discovered. University of California San Diego, 25 Jan. 2007. Web. 10 Apr. 2017.

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