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Ask a Doc: Is inflammation good or bad?

Chronic inflammation is the root of many health issues. While medical professionals recognize the link between inflammation and disease, there’s much more to learn about the connection and the impact on our bodies. According to Yale Medicine, inflammation has emerged as a key factor in serious diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, obesity, diabetes, and a variety of infectious diseases. Raymond A. James, D.O. and medical director of the Boca Grande Health Clinic tells us what to know about inflammation and what you can do to combat it. Do you have a question for us? If so, please send questions to the Clinic at https://www.bghc.org/contact or to the Boca Beacon and we will answer them.

What is inflammation?

Inflammation is a natural, biological process. It’s how your body reacts to things that cause harm, as a way of defending itself against tissue damage, bacteria and viruses. For instance, if you burn your hand, sprain an ankle, or are sick, your body sends white blood cells to the affected areas. This can result in redness and swelling, or fever.

Normal inflammation is a good thing. But when the immune response isn’t enough to clear things up, inflammation can become chronic and harm your body. Chronic, or prolonged, inflammation interferes with homeostasis, which is the process that runs things in our bodies, like breathing, heart rate and glucose. 

Left unaddressed, chronic inflammation can damage healthy cells, tissues and organs, and may cause internal scarring, tissue death and damage to the DNA in previously healthy cells. This can lead to the development of serious illnesses including diabetes and cancer.

I sometimes feel bloated. Is that swelling from inflammation?

No, bloating (or feeling too full after a meal or due to ingesting too much sodium) is a build-up of gas in the stomach and intestines. Swelling, on the other hand, is a measurable increase in size.

How do I know if it’s inflammation?

A visual inspection can identify normal inflammation. Is there pain, redness, or swelling? Is the area hot to the touch? Is it hard to move the part of the body that hurts? Chronic inflammation takes a bit more investigation. Symptoms include sustained body pain, brain fog, chronic fatigue and insomnia, depression, anxiety and mood disorders, gastrointestinal complications like constipation, diarrhea, and acid reflux, weight gain or weight loss and frequent infections. We can attribute many of these symptoms to other health issues, so it’s best to have a thorough conversation with your doctor.

There are lab tests that can be done to help detect chronic inflammation, but we can’t use these as absolutely definitive answers. Two blood tests that are good indicators of the cause of inflammation are high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (hsCRP) and fibrinogen tests.

Is there medicine to rid the body of inflammation?

Over-the-counter NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) are designed to help reduce inflammation, relieve pain and bring down a high temperature. These are meant for short-term use. You shouldn’t use an NSAID continuously for more than three days for fever, and 10 days for pain, unless your doctor has instructed you to do so. Diclofenac is considered the strongest and most effective NSAID medicine available. Diclofenec is sold under the prescription brand names Cambia, Cataflam, Zipsor and Zorvolex and is also available as a topical gel, Voltaren, which is available over the counter.

Is inflammation a life sentence?

Inflammation is complicated. Sometimes it’s a good thing; sometimes, bad. What’s important is to understand what is causing inflammation and treat the underlying causes. The good news is that you can control – and even reverse – inflammation with lifestyle and diet changes. I won’t say that’s always the easiest to achieve, but it certainly is something we all are able to control.

Sleep deprivation is a big trigger of inflammation, as is stress. Exercise has many positive benefits, physically and mentally. Clinical trials have shown that energy expenditure through exercise lowers multiple pro-inflammatory molecules and cytokines independently of weight loss.

Low-glycemic diets that limit the consumption of inflammation-promoting foods like sodas, refined carbohydrates and fructose corn syrup are recommended. You can also take steps to reduce or even eliminate your intake of total, saturated fat and synthetic trans fats (think, processed foods).

Do you have a question for us? If so, please send questions to the Clinic at https://www.bghc.org/contact or to the Boca Beacon and we will answer them.

About the Author

Raymond A. James, D.O.

Medical Director
Raymond A. James, D.O.

Dr. James joined the Clinic in March 2018 and serves as Medical Director of the Clinic. A graduate of Des Moines University College of Osteopathic Medicine, he completed his residency at Metropolitan Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is board certified in emergency medicine and has been awarded fellowship status by the American College of […]

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