Chronic and recurring pain is frustrating. What's worse, the underlying cause is often misunderstood.
Pain is often linked to inflammation. When part of your body is inflamed, you may notice warmth, swelling and redness -- or nothing other than pain. Inflammation is a normal, healthy immune response, but like other body processes, it sometimes causes harm.
Inflammation: Too Much of a Good Thing
Pain from inflammation is caused by the white blood cells that gather in inflamed areas. Normally, white blood cells fight off disease and infection.
But when your body calls them there and they don't have anything to fight, they attack your internal systems due to a lack of foreign invaders. And this irritates the surrounding area. In response, your nerves send pain signals to your brain. Normal, acute pain quickly resolves itself, but inflammation pain can be chronic and impact your quality of life. It may also cause symptoms like swelling, redness and joint stiffness.
Inflammation, Swelling, Pain ... and Disease?
Normally, pain protects your body: it alerts you that something's wrong. For example, if you break your ankle, the pain from the inflammatory response stops you from trying to walk on that leg, and you know that you need to get medical attention. But sometimes the body has an abnormal inflammation response. It doesn't always occur in a visible location: Your joints, heart, brain and other tissues can be affected.
While the inflammatory response itself is well-documented, doctors haven't discovered every factor that leads to an overactive inflammatory response. Researchers hypothesize that age, weight, genetics and stress levels can all lead to this response ... but none of these cause it.
Experts do know that inflammation can cause or contribute to diseases like arthritis, heart disease, diabetes, cancer and depression. But some researchers, especially in the fields of alternative and integrative medicine, hypothesize that inflammation is a cause (or even the cause) of many other illnesses.
Other doctors are skeptical of this, but acknowledge that inflammation often exacerbates existing conditions. In any case, reducing the body's inflammatory response is usually a good thing for managing health conditions and pain, especially when it's chronic. Simply put, you'll probably feel better when your body isn't attacking itself!
Treating Inflammation with Drugs?
You may be wondering if there's a pill you can take -- and your doctor may be pressuring you to take one. For mild cases of inflammation-related pain, you can use over-the-counter medication: nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen both lessen pain and reduce the inflammatory response.
However, it typically takes a higher dose of NSAIDs to reduce inflammation than it does to reduce pain alone. And taking a pill affects the whole body, which can be taxing on the stomach and kidneys, especially over time. As a one-off to control inflammation, NSAIDs can help, but they're not something to rely on over time.
Your doctor may prescribe special medications for inflammation. These include corticosteroids like prednisone, or disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs in cases where inflammation is causing arthritis. Naturally, these treatments are expensive, and like NSAIDs they come with their own side-effects. If you can control inflammation without NSAIDs or other drugs, that'll keep your body, and your liver, happier.
Healing Inflammation Naturally
The good news is, it's easy to make positive lifestyle changes to reduce your body's inflammation and pain. There's a whole host of options available to you, and you can incorporate them into your life bit-by-bit.
For instance, you may have heard about anti-inflammatory diets. Many Western diets -- including diets low on vegetables and fiber, and high on processed foods, red meat, sugar and unhealthy fats -- are linked to an abnormal immune response. Cleaning up your diet is one of the best and simplest ways to keep your body's inflammatory response in check to reduce your pain -- and that's not to mention the other health benefits.
Most anti-inflammatory diets are modeled after the Mediterranean diet. But don't let the word "diet" confuse you -- this isn't about sticking to rabbit food. You get to enjoy (in moderation) healthy fats, including lots of nuts and fish, and plenty of fruits and vegetables. As a bonus, the Mediterranean diet is widely acknowledged as being healthy for your heart.
And if you're not a fan of a seafood diet, cheer up: many studies have shown that supplementing fish oil (omega-3 fatty acids) has a positive effect on inflammation. Several promising studies show that turmeric extract or juice reduces inflammation, although this requires more study. There are many other traditional pain relief remedies that work by reducing inflammation, as well.
In the long run, many people find success exercising, losing weight and reducing stress levels to reducetheir inflammation. But if you're in pain or your joints are swollen, it's hard to exercise. We get it. That's why a lot of people find it more helpful to stop the inflammation-related pain in the short term, and then worry about strategies to stop the inflammation in the long run. Supplements, diet and pain relief creams are a quick and easy intervention method to get inflammation and pain under control.
Obviously the journey doesn't stop with this article. Do some more research. Read more. Knowledge is power, and it doesn't need to be boring. There are lots of easy and fun ways to learn how to reduce your inflammation. And ultimately reduce your pain. Go find them.