For many years, inflammation has always been regarded as detrimental and a cause for concern. Inflammation leads to pain or swelling, which we naturally associate as undesirable conditions.
Whenever we see inflammation in any part of our body, our first response is to alleviate any complications. As such, anti-inflammatory drugs and painkillers such as ibuprofen, paracetamol or aspirin are liberally prescribed and used worldwide to reduce or inhibit inflammation symptoms.
To ascertain whether inflammation is good or bad, we have to understand the different types of inflammation and why it happens.
In short, not all inflammation may be bad.
What Is Inflammation?
Inflammation is the body’s natural response to injuries or infections. It is a vital part of the human immune system as it acts as a defence and healing mechanism.
There are generally two types of inflammation — acute and chronic inflammation.
Acute or short-term inflammation results in pain or swelling that typically lasts for a few days. On the other hand, chronic or long-term inflammation may persist for months or even years.
Why Is Inflammation Bad?
We know that inflammation is our immune system’s natural reaction to injuries and that the various inflammatory responses such as redness, swelling or pain occur to protect us. However, oftentimes, our immune system’s response may be excessive, causing more harm than good.
Prolonged inflammation, which includes persistent pain or swelling, can cause atrophy of the muscles surrounding the injury. This results in loss of muscle mass, eventually leading to muscle weakness.
Furthermore, if inflammation is not treated appropriately, the pain or swelling may become chronic and persist much longer. Prolonged swelling causes tissues to become stiffer and less flexible, significantly increasing their susceptibility to further injuries. Chronic inflammation is also harmful to our body in the long run as it may lead to more severe conditions such as heart diseases, diabetes or even cancer.
Can Inflammation Be A Good Thing?
Yes. Inflammation exists for a reason. Recent studies have revealed that inflammation is a necessary and imperative healing process for our body to naturally deal with viruses and bacteria.
“Although inflammation has historically been viewed as detrimental for recovery from exercise, it is now generally accepted that inflammatory responses, if tightly regulated, are integral to muscle repair and regeneration.” (Peake & Neubauer, 2017)
In other words, inflammation is our body’s natural healing mechanism against injuries and infections.
During an injury, harmful organisms such as bacteria or viruses may enter the body. When the immune system detects these foreign bodies, it will activate a biological response to fight and remove them. Our blood capillaries will expand, increasing blood flow to bring immune cells such as neutrophils and monocytes, antibodies, protein and other fluids to the injury site. This causes inflammation and swelling, which protects and repairs the damaged tissues, kickstarting the healing process.
This type of inflammation is acute and temporary. Therefore, blocking the body’s natural healing process with anti-inflammatory drugs and painkillers such as aspirin or paracetamol inhibits the body’s automatic immune response.
As such, inflammation can be a good thing, provided that it is acute. However, although temporary acute inflammation can help with recovery, it may be a concern when the inflammation becomes chronic.
What Should I Do About Inflammation?
Although inflammation will help heal your injuries naturally, you will still need to reduce swelling or pain as too much swelling may slow down the entire healing process. Untreated inflammation can also result in more swelling and pain.
Here are several treatment methods you may wish to adopt:
- Rest. Resting is one of the most effective ways to begin your healing process. By limiting your movement, you can reduce swelling by restricting unnecessary blood flow to your injured area and preventing your damaged cells from irritation.
- Ice. Applying cold therapy to your injured area can reduce swelling and pain by decreasing blood flow to the area. You can wrap a clean cloth around an ice pack and apply it to the swollen area for about 15 to 20 minutes. This should be repeated a couple of times throughout the day, taking note to allow your skin to return to normal temperature between each session.
- Compress. Applying pressure to your injury can help to minimise swelling and prevent the buildup of fluid. You can apply compression by wrapping an elastic or static bandage firmly around your injury. This will also help to immobilize the injured site and ease the pain.
However, you should not wrap it too tightly as it may cause discomfort and impede your blood flow. Hence, adjust the bandages according to the severity of your condition.
- Elevate. Elevating an injury above your chest level can minimise swelling by reducing blood flow and allowing any fluid to drain away from the injury. If you cannot raise it above your heart, you can also level it to your chest.2
- Medications. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and painkillers such as aspirin, paracetamol or ibuprofen can reduce inflammation and minimise pain.
The truth is, our attitude towards inflammation is slowly changing. Gone are the days when inflammation was regarded as only an adverse effect.
At the heart of it all, inflammation is a fundamental and crucial part of the body’s natural healing process. Acute inflammation is good, and it is the body’s response to protect us.
However, chronic inflammation may be detrimental and an alarming cause for concern.
Inflammation is not necessarily bad after all.
14 year niece has a mild sprained ankle with a boot on. Refuses to elevate it and ice it. Foot is extremely swollen. Are there long term affects of not treating this properly? Blood flow problems? Extreme circumstances of amputation?
Useful article and it’s good to hear a member of the community espousing inflammation. However, Paracetamol is not regarded as having any serious anti-inflammatory effects / NSAID. I would never prescribe / recommend it on this basis. Simple error to make if I’m honest
Why is the swelling spreading to areas that was normal before?
As a 73-year-old distance runner currently recovering from a ruptured achilles tendon, I’ve read and practiced just about everyone’s findings on inflammation. As such, this article is welcomed and recommended for others. Inflammation—like every other natural response of the body to injury and insult—is a good thing in general and a not-so-good thing in certain specific circumstances. The most important lesson is this: “Listen to your body.” And also “Yes, pay heed to trusted advisers.” This may be your coach, or trainer, or sports med doc, or physical therapist. For me, it even includes my urologist, a distance runner. Always remember: inflammation is neither good nor bad … it just is, ready and waiting for your specific response,.
Great article until the “ice” section.
By stating that ice reduces swelling and blood flow you are contradicting yourself.
Ice is beneficial for pain relief only. It is essentially otherwise an anti-inflammatory.