Inflammation Isn’t Bad, or Is It?
Inflammation is a very popular subject, and rightly so.
Nearly every physical therapy patient that I see has inflammation. Or as they say in Spanish, (in-fla-ma-see-own). Surely I will be making a lot of blog entries on the subject – and today, as my first ever blog post- I’m going to probably get a little long winded describing this beast in layman’s terms as best as I can. I’m going to write about what inflammation is. Open the discussion if inflammation really is good or bad. Talk about the usual ‘treatment’ options for inflammation and how I feel about those. And give you something new to try out to help with inflammation, something that your doctor probably won’t be mentioning. Phew! I wonder if I really will have anything else to blog about on the topic when I’m done with this one! I hope this helps you grasp the concept better, all for the sake of knowing how to help yourself know what to do to feel better!!
Inflammation is the body’s response to an injury, or an irritant, or an allergy… If you get a cut, the body senses the possibility of invasion of dirt and germs into the wound, and it sends a bunch of soldiers to that area of your body to fight against the invaders and to start closing the wound. The soldiers – an army sized group of white blood cells and other specialized support cells- is what makes that area look red, feel warm, get swollen, etc. We need these cells/these soldiers/this inflammation, to protect us. It’s a natural and helpful response to an injury.
In the case of an ingested allergy a similar thing occurs. The body senses a foreign invader. It sends the army out so that it can quarantine the unwanted invader and neutralize the allergen. That’s why your gut gets bloated, swollen, and gassy… your soldiers are killing off the stuff you’re ‘allergic’ to and the die off produces gases.
In the case of a strained muscle a similar thing also occurs. The body senses damage. It sends that same army of specialized cells to the area to assess the damage, do a clean up, and to start working on putting things back together. That’s why after you sprain your ankle, it swells up and gets warm and turns red.
So, inflammation is a brilliantly designed protective mechanism in our body.
Inflammation is Good!
However, inflammation has a bad wrap. Everyone is trying to get rid of inflammation. People will spend their last few bucks to buy a bottle of anti-inflammatory pills so that they can get that swelling out of there and end their suffering. You likely won’t walk out of a doctors’ clinic without a prescription or a free sample of Ibuprofen, Aleve, or Naproxyn. And Why is that? well….
Inflammation in excess, and when it’s being produced chronically, is indeed a problem.
But the question is, in the case of an injury to our muscles tendons bones discs and nerves, what is the best way to support our body while it’s doing its job of making and sending soldiers around for their clean up and repair duty?
“RICE” is a pretty popular protocol. But right off the top I’m not a big fan of the ‘rest’ part, because resting, guarding, immobilizing are all things that are going to limit your circulation. It’s important for your injured area to have good circulation so that the inflammation can get to the job site, do its job, and then have an open lane of traffic to get out of there. Movement encourages circulation! (If you have a question about the right movements for a specific injury – check out the ‘what hurts’ section on my website INSIGHT INTO INJURY. It’s exactly what I’m talking about!).
Ice is really quite popular. Placing an ice pack for 15 mins or less over the injured body part with a thin layer of towel in between the ice and your skin serves a couple purposes; the coldness will numb your pain temporarily, and the coldness restricts blood flow while it’s on your skin (keeping too many soldiers from getting there) and then when the ice is removed, temperature receptors in your skin tell your circulatory system, “Hey! Hey! It’s cold over here! Send some more blood to warm it up!” So you get a surge of improved circulation that flushes out some stagnant inflammation and other unwanted products of the injury, and the soldiers that had been held up had a chance to rest and now can charge back in to do some work feeling all fresh. Well, okay, maybe I’m personifying things too much, but I like the idea that that’s what’s going on in there!
Compression, or better yet an ice compression, is kind of the same concept. It limits the amount of swelling that can get into that area if you’re squeezing it off. It’s a good way to get started for the first couple of days.
Elevation is also popular choice. Elevating the injured part above your heart allows gravity to help your lymphatic system to drain some of the swelling off. This is also a good option especially if your injury is to your ankle or foot.
Massage can be helpful. There are a couple different concepts and techniques behind that, and I think I’ll save that for another blog. Keep your eyes out for that! Basically, massage helps the circulation and opens the channels up for any chronic swelling to find its way out of there.
Medication. Medication is absolutely my least favorite option. You’ll definitely be hearing more about my opinion on pharmaceuticals if you stick around and get to know me more in future blogs, but the 2 main reasons why I steer clear of the oh-so-popular anti-inflammatory pill bottle, are these:
1: It’s passive.
Popping a pill does not give you any forward action towards your recovery. You might get temporary relief, but, when the meds wear off your pain comes back, and you’ve still got just as bad of an injury as you had before you took the pill.
And 2: at least 75% of the patients I see that chronically take anti-inflammatory drugs complain of stomach irritation (heart burn, nausea, and problems going #2). What fun is that?!
So, if you go to the doctor with an injury or when you’re doing a basic search regarding inflammation on Google, those are the options you’ll find to help decrease inflammation. HOWEVER- there is something more you can do too! There is a very old tried and true concept of using food as medicine, and it is starting to make a huge comeback. (woohoo!) I am a firm believer that the things we put in our mouths can either work for us or against us. And it was the Food Babe that opened my eyes to that! I’ll go into more detail about how much more awesome I feel since avoiding processed foods in another Blog or 2 soon, but I can tell you for sure that even making a few changes in that direction will make a noticeable difference in your aches and pains and energy level. Here’s a great place to start – with the Food Babe’s Anti-inflammatory Smoothie! She’ll explain an injury that she had herself, and why she chooses ginger over pharmaceuticals. Check it out!