The word inflammation comes from the Latin word inflammationem, which means “a setting on fire.” Certainly anyone who has experienced the feelings of heat, redness, swelling, pain and burning that makes the origin of this word an accurate description. But what exactly is inflammation and how can it hurt—as well as help—your body?
At its most basic definition, inflammation is the body’s natural reaction to an injury or infection—its attempt to heal itself. So, while we generally have negative connotations to the word, we are nevertheless fortunate that the body has this built-in immune system in place to recognize damaged cells, irritants and pathogens to heal an injury or fight an infection. Though inflammation may be uncomfortable, it is the body’s biological response to remove a harmful affect on the body. Without it, infections, wounds, and other damage to tissue couldn’t heal.
“Inflammation overall is an immune response,” says Kim Kulp, registered dietician at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital. “It’s your body’s way of trying to fix any foreign invader, or some damage to the body,” adds Kulp, who is also the owner of her own private practice, Health Tastes Great, seeing patients in both Novato and Mill Valley.
Generally, once the injury or infection is healed, the inflammation should stop. This normal process is usually identified as acute inflammation. However, when inflammation does not dissipate, but lingers in the body long term it becomes chronic inflammation and can lead to a variety of other diseases.
“Acute and chronic [inflammation] is just a descriptor of the chronicity, or the time, that the inflammation has taken place in your body,” says Michael Yang, M.D., Santa Rosa-based Summit Pain Alliance, a leader in pain management in Northern California, which provides cutting edge technologies, pain management therapies, and advancements in pain relief, both acute and chronic. “Generally, in the field of pain management, we demarcate that at about six months. It’s not an exact science, but we have to draw the line somewhere, so it’s generally accepted that anything beyond six months is considered chronic pain. Inflammation is exactly that. So, if you’ve had an inflammatory response in a certain body part and if it’s been there longer than six months, it’s considered chronic.”