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What Is Inflammation in Your Body? How It's Measured and Treated

by Eric McLaughlin, M.D., M.P.H.



Doctors and health-care providers like to use big words. We go to school for many years just to learn these big words and, like children, we enjoy showing off.

Take “inflammation.” Not too long ago, when we said “inflammation,” we usually meant what happens when you get a cut or scrape. Swollen, red skin was “inflamed.” Your joints could be inflamed, too, if you had arthritis.

But now, we’re using “inflammation” all over the place. Studies in the news keep connecting it to about every common disease in the book—including heart disease, stroke and cancer.

Inflammation is both simple and complex—both good and bad. But there is something you can do about it. In fact, the solution is pretty simple. After learning what inflammation actually is, you’ll see why.


Think of a skinned knee and the redness, swelling, pain and warmth that surround the scrape almost immediately. That’s inflammation—tissue’s reaction to injury. In this case, it’s good. Swelling creates a tight barrier, keeping bacteria out. The redness and warmth are from an increased blood supply, providing defense mechanisms like white blood cells. A basic role of isolating injury, destroying invaders and healing damaged tissue, inflammation is vital.

When you get inflammation inside your body, though, you can have issues. The problems start when it happens in a dangerous spot, such as the coronary arteries.


Inflammation and Your Heart: treatment, explanation and advice

Just as inflammation on your skin results from injury, inflammation inside your body comes from cell damage. This can be from physical trauma or any other insult. High blood pressure, poor glucose control in diabetes, cigarette smoke and increased cholesterol cause inflammation in arteries.

Researchers are looking at harmful ways inflammation affects your body. One main issue they’re examining is heart disease.

Some research has shown a relationship between inflammation and heart attack. The double whammy: People with inflammation may be less likely to survive a heart attack and more likely to have arteries close up again that were opened with stents or balloons. Perhaps, scientists say, inflamed arteries are more likely to build up plaques and have these plaques break off and travel to the heart. Inflammation’s ties to stroke probably work the same way.

Cancer is another matter. We still understand some types of cancer poorly, but, for example, smoking causes long-term cellular irritation. We’re not yet sure of the role inflammation plays.



In the classic The Art of War, Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu wrote, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” He would have made a good doctor.

If we want to stop inflammation, we can prevent what causes it—attacking the problem at its source.

Maintaining a healthy blood pressure; watching your cholesterol; stopping tobacco; and, for diabetics, controlling your glucose, are important steps. Researchers are even looking into infections that cause chronic inflammation that affects the heart, with the herpes virus and the Chlamydia pneumoniae bacteria (not the same as the STD chlamydia) getting a lot of attention.

One of the most important weapons in the battle against inflammation and heart disease may be aspirin. Aspirin is a wonder drug, capable of doing many things. While we don’t know the exact way it works, it does decrease fevers, inflammation, pain and blood clots. These are some of the basic causes and results of the inflammatory process. Clearly, aspirin plays a role, but at what level remains to be seen.


One test for inflammation is the C-reactive protein measurement. Some clinicians are advocating including it routinely, as another part of the cholesterol screening. One crimp in such a plan: The CRP test detects any inflammation, no matter where it is. A skinned knee, flu, arthritis and infections are common causes of elevated CRP. Getting to the root can take some time and require multiple tests.

People with a normal or slightly elevated cholesterol profile might benefit from having a CRP test done since it may suggest another risk factor for heart disease. But overall, experts suggest most people shouldn’t ask for or expect a CRP. This may change, but for now the data is unclear.

newsletter-graphicYou can help prevent inflammation by doing the same things you already know are good for you. Controlling blood pressure and diabetes, getting regular exercise, eating a low-fat diet with fruits and veggies, and cutting out tobacco are ways to decrease the root causes of inflammation and heart disease. That way, you won’t have to worry about that CRP test anyway.

ERIK MCLAUGHLIN, M.D., M.P.H., is a family doctor resident in Chicago. He runs the travel health Web site

Last updated and/or approved: March 2010. Original article appeared in March/April 2009 former print magazine. Bio current as of April 2009.

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