If you’ve ever hit your finger with a hammer when you intended to pound a nail, you’re familiar with inflammation. The pain, redness and swelling are the body’s immune system response to what it perceives as a harmful exposure. As the injury heals, this state of acute inflammation fades, usually within a few days. However, some people are also affected by chronic inflammation, which can occur inside the body and may not have any outward symptoms. Understanding chronic inflammation can help you minimize and manage its effects on your health.
What Is Chronic Inflammation?
Like acute inflammation, chronic inflammation is a response to an exposure the body’s immune system perceives as harmful. This could be a reaction to elevated LDL cholesterol levels, which are also linked to cardiovascular disease. It could also be a reaction to wear and tear on the joints from a task like tying rebar, a common construction job that can also contribute to osteoarthritis and nerve damage. When these exposures occur, the body releases a flood of infection-fighting white blood cells and other substances that surround the affected area. While this is the body’s attempt to repair damaged tissue, it can have consequences in other areas. For example, in the case of cardiovascular disease, the inflamed blood vessels produce a buildup of plaque, the fatty material that can block arteries and cause heart attacks and stroke.
In recent years, chronic inflammation has also been linked to cancer, diabetes, depression and Alzheimer’s disease. This condition can linger for months or even years and can occur for a number of reasons. Sometimes it’s because the body’s immune system fails to eliminate the threat (e.g., exposure to cigarette smoke) or remains on high alert after the threat has been resolved. Other times, a person’s immune system activates for unknown reasons, and with no threat to fight, starts attacking healthy tissues and organs. This can create a chronic inflammatory response that can cause autoimmune diseases including:
- Rheumatoid arthritis: permanently inflamed joints throughout the body
- Psoriasis: inflamed scales and patches on the skin that can be painful and itchy
- Crohn’s disease: inflammation of the digestive tract, which can lead to abdominal pain, severe diarrhea, fatigue, weight loss and malnutrition
Autoimmune diseases cannot be cured, but under a doctor’s care, including the use of prescribed medications such as corticosteroids and biologics, they can be managed. The main goal of treatment is to achieve and maintain remission of the disease.
What Can You Do About Chronic Inflammation?
Doctors often recommend the following lifestyle choices for those seeking to minimize the harmful effects of certain inflammatory health conditions:
- Following the Mediterranean diet, which is high in fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, fish and healthy oils, and limiting fried foods like French fries and processed meats like hot dogs and bacon.
- Being physically active and engaging in at least two and a half hours of moderate intensity exercise, or one hour and fifteen minutes of vigorous intensity exercise each week. Choosing low-impact activities may be necessary for people with certain types of chronic inflammation, so talk to your doctor about what is best for you.
- Quitting smoking.
How to Treat Acute Inflammation
Depending on where it is located, there are several ways to treat acute inflammation. For example, pain and swelling from a strained back or sprained ankle can often be addressed with rest, ice, compression and elevation (RICE).
Whether the inflammation is linked to a cut or bruise or involves a sore throat or swollen nasal passages from exposure to an irritant like pollen, the related pain and swelling can also be treated with a number of over-the-counter medications. These include acetaminophen and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen, naproxen and aspirin.
The LHSFNA has developed a number of materials that can help educate Laborers on what to do to reduce their risk for inflammation. These include publications on nutrition and fitness, risk factors for heart disease and quitting tobacco use. For more information or to order, call 202-628-5465 or visit our online Publications Catalogue.
[Janet Lubman Rathner]