Fire is one of man’s greatest tools. It can power large factories as well as keeping our homes warm. At the same time if it is out of control it can burn down thousands of acres of a forest in a day. A small spark inside a house can cause an electrical fire that can destroy an entire home instantly. Inflammation like fire can be very useful in certain situations but detrimental in others.
The process of inflammation is the first and greatest defence of our body. When we hear the term inflammation we usually think that there is a problem in our body. But we miss the fact that the inflammation itself is not the problem, but normally the solution to a problem that has preceded it.
“In a healthy situation, inflammation serves as a good friend to our body,” says Mansour Mohamadzadeh, PhD, director of the Center for Inflammation and Mucosal Immunology at the University of Florida.
“But if immune cells start to overreact, that inflammation can be totally directed against us.”
When the body tissue is injured the immune system begins a response in order to manage the damage. Substances called prostaglandins are released causing the blood vessels in the area to dilate. This allows neutrophils to reach the wound and ‘clean up’ the area while platelets clot the wound site. It also allows for macrophages - another immune cell - to rush the area and release growth factors that help to heal the injured tissues.
This response is crucial to the healing process. However much of the advice we hear regarding treating injuries aims to quell the inflammation which is necessary for the healing. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) halt the release of prostaglandins, diminishing the body’s ability to activate the cells required that heal the area of injury. Additionally they inhibit the synthesis of proteoglycans, a substance required to repair the connective tissue of our ligaments and tendons.
Another commonly prescribed treatment of acute injuries known as R.I.C.E (Rest, ice, compression and elevation). Aims to decrease inflammation, effectively halting the healing process. Even Dr. Gabe Mirkin, the inventor of the R.I.C.E prescription, has called into question the efficacy of this treatment stating that “it now appears that both ice and complete rest may delay healing instead of helping”.
Ice decreases the blood flow to the area, disabling the transport of required immune cells into the damaged tissue. It also decreases the release of growth factors required for healing. Tissues that already have low blood supply, such as ligaments, are particularly affected by this further decrease in blood flow. Ligament injuries that have failed to heal completely are often the root cause of chronic pain in many joints, including the ankles, knees, low back, neck and shoulders.
Let’s look at the benefits of a healthy inflammatory response:
However chronic and unchecked inflammation can cause:
What can we do to prevent your body’s greatest defense from becoming your body’s greatest enemy?