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  • Writer's pictureRobin Hill LMT, RN

What is inflammation?

The human body is an amazing machine that has incredible healing abilities. We have internal repair mechanisms that jump into action when an injury has occurred. Our healing is automatic and most of the time we do not know it is happening. There are times we know it is happening because we feel the symptoms.

When we get an injury we know about it by pain and inflammation. Inflammation is the body’s attempt at self-protection. Its goal is to remove the damaged cells, pathogens, and harmful stimuli so the body can begin its healing process. The word inflammation is Latin; “inflammo” meaning “I set alight, I ignite”. If you pull a muscle or tear a tendon you know it is healing because you feel and see it, mainly because of inflammation. The body’s immune system sends healing resources to the site of injury resulting in inflammation. The injured area receives increased blood flow and more white blood cells along with other substances that help heal. Wounds, injuries and infections would never heal without inflammation.

There are five signs of acute inflammation:

1. Pain – The area that is inflamed will be sore and painful to the touch.

2. Redness – blood rushes to the area.

3. Immobility – due to pain or swelling, there could be loss of range of motion.

4. Swelling - an accumulation of fluid.

5. Heat – the extra blood in the area can make the area feel warm to the touch.

Inflammation is normally not a problem for most of us— normally it doesn’t last more than a few days. In some cases inflammation is lengthy and doesn't seem to go away. Inflammation that doesn’t go away can lead to chronic inflammation, a condition that can result in a shift in the type of cells at the site of inflammation. Chronic inflammation is characterized by the concurrent destruction and healing of the tissue from the inflammatory process.

Chronic inflammation slows down the metabolic process that is critical to building muscle mass and burning fat. Some chronic inflammation cases can be tied to legitimate medical conditions that should be treated by medical professionals. The onset of chronic inflammation can also be linked to an unhealthy lifestyle. Poor diet, stress, smoking, excessive drinking, lack of sleep, or not enough exercise. All these can reduce the body’s ability to manage inflammation.

We need to understand that not all inflammation is bad. In fact, some inflammation is good for our bodies while other types of inflammation are bad. We usually associate inflammation with pain, however, we also need to understand that inflammation is necessary in the body’s healing response to an injury (or infection). The inflammation and pain tell us two important things:

1. We have an injury that we must pamper in order for it to heal.

2. The healing process is working, as it should. The inflamed tissue pressing up against nerves causes pain that is associated with inflammation.

When inflammation is being the facilitator of the healing process, it is generally either in ‘attack’ mode or ‘heal’ mode. In attack mode, the inflammation calls on the immune system to protect the body from an injury and to get rid of the infection. In the heal mode, inflammation works to re-grow damaged tissue as it facilitates the healing process. Knowing this it is easier to distinguish good and bad inflammation. Acute inflammation occurs directly after an injury and is mostly short lived. Chronic inflammation is an unhealthy over response of the immune system and can be around for weeks, months or even years.

Now that we understand the difference between acute (good) inflammation and chronic (bad) inflammation, it is time to understand some causes of chronic inflammation and how we can prevent it. Environmental issues such as stress, smoking, certain chemicals or substances and certain foods have all been known to support the start of chronic inflammation. These are all factors we can—for the most part—reduce or eliminate from our lives (e.g., diet, learn to manage stress, don’t smoke, reduce exposure to harmful chemicals, etc.). And of these, diet is the single most important controllable factor in regards to whether or not an individual experiences chronic inflammation. Healthy foods support the body’s metabolic system.

Inflammation can hinder injury recovery. The four phases of healing are: hemostasis (stopping flow of blood), inflammation, proliferation (rapid reproduction of cells), and remodeling. These healing phases must occur in order and in a timely fashion. If any of these phases are interrupted, the healing process is slowed down and it inhibits recovery.

After a strenuous workout when your joints and muscles are sore, these are symptoms of post workout tissue inflammation. This post workout tissue inflammation slows recovery, can cause overuse injuries and limits gains.

Inflammation does promote workout/training/exercise adaptation by facilitating the repair of everyday muscle damage. This step is an important essential step in developing bigger, stronger muscle fibers. Inflammation can make our muscles more resistant to future damage by strengthening particular areas. The inflammation response helps to protect the muscle fibers from future damage—at least to some degree.

There is also a negative part to inflammation as well. Although inflammation does repair tissue damage that has resulted from exercise, it can also cause further damage—to secondary muscles—between workout sessions. Secondary muscle damage is the reason you feel more pain and stiffness the day after a strenuous workout than you do when you leave the gym. This is referred to as delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS), which is a symptom of muscle tissue damage (inflammation).

Factors that facilitate healing and injury recovery (reduced inflammation)

• Youth

• Good nutrition protein, vitamins A and C

• Staying properly hydrated

• Proper exercise and weight training programs such as incrementally increasing weight or resistance (no big leaps in weight), using proper form and getting plenty of rest in between workout sessions.

I hope you have learned a little about inflammation, good, bad and ugly. My next blog will talk about food, how food can cause inflammation and what kind of diet that will help reduce the inflammation.

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