Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at January 8, 2016

Inflammation occurs when the body attempts to heal itself in response to infection, injury, or other harmful stimuli. Inflammation can help expel pathogens or irritants that have entered the body, allowing healing to begin but it can also be a symptom of an autoimmune disorder or chronic illness.


Definition & Facts

Inflammation is either acute or chronic. Acute inflammation is when the immune response results from a specific instance of injury or infection and subsides once the tissue has healed. Inflammation can also be chronic where a person experiences ongoing inflammation due to persistent health conditions such as osteoarthritis.

Inflammation involves the cells of the immune system releasing inflammatory mediators which in turn cause a variety of processes to combat pathogens and repair damaged tissue. Inflammatory mediators, which include hormones, expand and increase the permeability of blood vessels, allowing an increased amount of blood and immune cells to travel to an injured, infected, or irritated body part.

In addition, inflammation can include the increased production of mucus as well as the build up of pus, which is a collection of white blood cells transported to consume pathogens and injured cells at the site of infection.

Symptoms & Complaints

Common symptoms of inflammation are redness, swelling, pain, immobility, and heat. Inflammation can also cause flu-like symptoms including fever, chills, fatigue, headache, and loss of appetite.


Causes of acute inflammation include injuries like lacerations or cuts, abrasions, and sprains as well as bacterial infections and viral infections. Causes of chronic inflammation include autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis and Inflammatory Bowel Syndrome, where immune cells target and destroy healthy tissue. Other ongoing health problems that can cause chronic inflammation include heart disease wherein deposits of LDL cholesterol or 'bad cholesterol' may be interpreted by the immune system as harmful foreign substances; the body sends proteins that cause the area to be inflamed which in turn cause arterial blockages and blood clots.

Diagnosis & Tests

Blood tests to diagnose chronic inflammation include testing for elevated levels of blood glucose, HDL, homocysteine, C-reactive protein or CRP, SED Rate, ferritin in the blood, and monocytes.

Treatment & Therapy

Common drugs to treat inflammation include over-the-counter medications like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), aspirin, and naproxen.

Techniques to treat inflammation depend on the location and type of the inflammation but can include heat therapy, cold therapy, massage, and acupuncture. Heat therapy can reduce inflammation of muscles and joints by increasing blood flow and the flexibility of cartilage and ligaments, decreasing joint stiffness, muscle spasms, and pain. Heat can also help reduce inflammation as well as fluid buildup in tissues. Heat can be applied either to the surface of the body or to the deep tissues and examples of surface application include hot packs, paraffin baths, infrared heat therapy, and hydrotherapy.

Cold therapy can help numb tissue and relieve muscle spasms. Cold is easily applied by using an ice bag or cold compress or certain fluids that cool the area by evaporation. Therapists will limit the amount of exposure to cold to avoid damaging tissue.

Massage can relieve pain by reducing swelling and loosening tissue while acupuncture may stimulate the production in the brain of endorphins, which can block pain and reduce inflammation.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

Nutrition and exercise can aid significantly in preventing and reducing chronic inflammation. Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, probiotics, phytochemicals, and antioxidants can fight inflammation. Regular exercise prevents systemic inflammation by reducing the risk for its underlying causes such as obesity as well as by increasing a variety of chemicals such as growth hormone and myokines which play a role in immunomodulation.