What Is Chronic Inflammation and How Do You Treat It?
This article will explain chronic inflammation, its symptoms, causes, and treatment options. It will also answer some frequently asked questions about chronic inflammation.
Your body responds to bacteria, viruses, injuries, and other potentially harmful substances by producing an inflammatory response. This inflammation can help to disable stimuli that may injure or harm the body, and initiate the healing process. Acute inflammation is a normal response to anything your body sees as “dangerous.”
After dealing with the infection or injury, inflammation typically resolves. However, sometimes the body is not able to resolve inflammation on its own. This can lead to chronic inflammation.
Chronic inflammation can become systemic, meaning it affects the whole body or various bodily systems.
Acute vs. chronic inflammation
Acute inflammation is a sudden response to an infection or damage to bodily tissues, such as from a broken bone. Acute inflammation occurs when the body sends white blood cells and macrophages to the affected area of the body.
However, if acute inflammation does not resolve, it can become chronic inflammation.
Chronic inflammation occurs when the body continues its inflammatory response to tissue damage or a perceived threat. This can happen even when the threat is no longer there.
When this happens, inflammation that initially started as an acute reaction may then become chronic.
Symptoms of chronic inflammation may depend on where the inflammation is in the body. A 2022 study suggests a strong and complex link between chronic inflammation and a wide range of both physical and mental health effects.
Some symptoms of chronic inflammation may include:
- body pain or muscle aches and pain
- joint stiffness
- unexpected weight loss or gain
- sleep difficulties or insomnia
- frequent illness or infections
- chronic fatigue
- mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety
- gastrointestinal symptoms such as acid reflux, constipation, or diarrhea
Acute inflammation may present similar symptoms, however, they typically only last for a few days. If your symptoms recur or do not improve after several weeks, this can be a sign of chronic inflammation.
The role of inflammation is to disable certain cells and stimuli. However, long-term systemic inflammation can eventually cause damage to the body. This can happen even if the targeted tissues are healthy and are not foreign or harmful.
If prolonged, this can cause permanent tissue damage and internal scarring. The American Cancer Society also suggests that chronic inflammation can cause damage to the body’s DNA over time and may even lead to cancer.
This damage and additional long-term effects of chronic inflammation can lead to the development of other illnesses. These can include:
- cardiovascular diseases such as heart attack and stroke
- rheumatoid arthritis
- allergic asthma
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- chronic kidney disease
- chronic inflammation of the intestinal tract leading to gastrointestinal diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
- Alzheimer’s disease
Chronic inflammation can also impact your mental health.
Clinicians associate inflammation with a range of conditions. This suggests that inflammation may lead to symptoms of some psychological conditions such as:
However, it is important to note that not everyone who experiences chronic inflammation will develop these complications. Additionally, research only observes a link between inflammation and the development of some psychiatric disorders. More studies are needed to confirm whether inflammation directly causes these disorders.
Chronic inflammation can result from several different circumstances, which may include:
- Unresolved infection or injury: This refers to an injury or infection that the immune response is not able to completely resolve in the body. With infection, pathogens may become resistant to the body’s defenses over time.
- Low level constant exposure: If the body experiences a low level of exposure to an irritant or foreign substance it is not able to eliminate, this may trigger inflammation. Examples include substances or chemicals that a person has inhaled over a long period of time.
- Substances causing cellular stress or dysfunction: This refers to an increased production of free radicals, uric acid, or other substances that lead to oxidative stress and cell dysfunction. This, in turn, can lead to inflammation.
- Repeated episodes of acute inflammation: Repeated episodes of acute inflammation may also lead to a chronic inflammatory response.
- Autoimmune conditions: An autoimmune disease refers to conditions in which the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue. Types of autoimmune diseases include diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus, and celiac disease.
- Cell impairments: Sometimes the cells that control inflammation can experience defects or impairments, leading to chronic or recurrent inflammation. This may happen as a result of particular disorders, such as familial Mediterranean fever.
Some inheritable conditions can cause chronic inflammation. It can also be caused by acquired conditions that impair the body’s immune response.
In some cases, clinicians may not know the exact cause of chronic inflammation. There may also be more than one underlying cause.
Is chronic inflammation an autoimmune disease?
Chronic inflammation is not a disease itself, but rather a process or reaction the body has to other underlying causes.
While autoimmune diseases can cause chronic inflammation, not all cases stem from an autoimmune disease. Many other types of illness can lead to chronic inflammation.
The following factors may put you more at risk of developing a low-level inflammatory response:
- being of older age
- having obesity
- being physically inactive
- eating a diet rich in saturated fats, trans fats, or refined sugar
- having lower levels of certain sex hormones, such as testosterone or estrogen
- experiencing stress or sleep disorders
- being exposed to toxins
Your doctor will review your medical history, family medical history, and symptoms to diagnose the cause of chronic inflammation.
Testing can also look for signs of chronic inflammation and monitor inflammation levels. Some of these tests will be non-specific, meaning they can show levels of inflammation, but will not be able to confirm the underlying cause.
These tests include:
- C-reactive protein test: A C-reactive protein (CRP) test measures the levels of CRP produced by the liver. CRP levels rise in response to increased levels of inflammation in the body. A CRP level of 1 to 3 may indicate chronic inflammation.
- Erythrocyte sedimentation rate: A erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) test is a type of blood test. It can measure the level of certain types of proteins in the blood and can help detect inflammation in the body.
If your doctor suspects chronic inflammation, they may suggest regular testing to monitor inflammation levels over time. This will help them assess how your body is reacting to any treatment.
Your doctor may initially use treatment to resolve the underlying cause of your inflammation. They may use additional treatment methods to address and alleviate symptoms.
Some potential treatments to help manage chronic inflammation may include:
- Steroids: Prescription steroid medications, such as corticosteroids, are hormones used to decrease inflammation by suppressing the immune system.
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): Medications such as ibuprofen, aspirin, or naproxen can help manage inflammation and pain.
- Other medication: Depending on the cause of inflammation, your doctor may prescribe additional medications to treat the underlying cause or alleviate symptoms. These can include metformin and statins.
- Supplements: Fish oil supplements and foods such as garlic, ginger, or turmeric can have anti-inflammatory properties. All medications and chemicals can potentially cause side effects or interactions, so it is important to talk with your doctor before use. This includes over-the-counter medications and natural supplements.
- Surgery: Your doctor may recommend surgery for autoimmune diseases such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. This can help address damage that is causing the inflammation.
Your doctor may recommend certain lifestyle changes to alleviate your symptoms or reduce complications.
Contact your healthcare team to see how at-home care for chronic inflammation may help you.
Lifestyle changes you can make include:
- maintaining a moderate BMI
- exercising regularly
- quitting smoking
- minimizing exposure to environmental pollutants
- following an anti-inflammatory diet
Chronic inflammation may not resolve on its own without treatment.
Your outlook, symptom progression, and quality of life will also depend on the underlying cause, and whether or not you experience complications.
However, you may be able to heal or manage chronic inflammation through treatment and lifestyle changes.
Talk with your doctor about ways to reduce or prevent chronic inflammation. This is especially important if you have a family history of certain health conditions. These can include autoimmune diseases, cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.
Inflammation is a normal reaction to an illness or injury. It is a part of your body’s natural immune response and healing process. Chronic inflammation occurs when an immune reaction continues to cause inflammation over an extended period of time.
Chronic inflammation can be the result of underlying conditions, lifestyle factors, and acquirable illness. Symptoms will vary depending on the cause, but often include body pain, fatigue, and frequent illness.
Contact your doctor if you have symptoms of chronic inflammation or illness. They can help diagnose your symptoms and provide more detailed information about your treatment options.