Overcoming The Pain and Disease of America’s #1 Silent Killer
This is the second of a 4 part series looking at one of the key factors in muscle growth and recovery, but left unchecked, can also be a silent killer.
Click here for Part 1.
TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING?
The real issue with inflammation has to do with balance: What is the optimal degree of inflammation in any given situation? We want just enough inflammation, but not too much.
For instance, let’s look at a sports-related sprained ankle. The athlete steps, lands, gets hit, or otherwise ends up “rolling” on the side of their foot, first stretching, and then tearing one of the supportive ligaments. This can range from a small tear to a complete tear. Cells are torn, and ultimately die in this process. This is referred to as the primary injury––The Emergency Response Team is now called in.
Depending on the severity of the sprain, there can be swelling almost immediately. If left untreated, the ankle may continue to swell even further. This swelling applies pressure to the tiny blood vessels in the area, effectively cutting off circulation. That means that uninjured cells near the area of primary injury can become hypoxic (lacking in oxygen) and die. This is referred to as secondary injury. Here’s the kicker though: the tissue damage from secondary injury is often much greater than the damage from the primary injury itself!
With this in mind, today athletes with sprains are treated very quickly and aggressively as opposed to 30 years ago. The treatment begins with R-I-C-E or Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation; all of which are aimed to control the amount of inflammation around the ankle to limit secondary tissue injury.
While it sounds low-tech, an icepack can be very effective, as it decreases pain, capillary permeability (leakiness), swelling, and actually increases blood flow after the icepack is removed as the body “rewarms” the tissue. This is in stark contrast to using a heating pad, which increases circulation, but at the expense of increased capillary permeability and increased swelling.
Physical therapy with ultrasound or laser is also intended to increase blood flow to promote healing while reducing inflammation. Oral anti-inflammatory medications (either prescription or over-the-counter) are also commonly used.
All said and done, athletes today can get back in the game in just a fraction of the time when treated properly, as secondary tissue injury is minimized. If not immediately treated, that sprained ankle can take 2-3 times longer to heal. Furthermore, when it does finally heal, it will heal with a greater amount of scar tissue which may negatively impact optimal function.
Controlling the balance, intensity, and duration of inflammation is the name of the game. Which leads us to the bad type of inflammation––the inflammation that just keeps on burning.
CHRONIC INFLAMMATION: A HAYWIRE IMMUNE SYSTEM?
Chronic inflammation is indeed a killer. Of that, there is no doubt. While a coroner’s report may list the cause of death as heart disease, it’s really saying that the cause of death was inflammation that manifested in the form of heart disease.
Chronic inflammation is a systemic issue, meaning that tissues throughout the entire body can be affected, and that we have no say as to what tissue might be most affected (coronary arties, the brain, etc.). Chronic inflammation happens when the inflammatory process doesn’t shut off, or doesn’t shut off completely. In this case, the process can start working on healthy tissue and put it under “friendly fire”. Effectively, our own immune system turns on the body it was designed to protect.
It is well-established that inflammation is an underlying cause, and plays a key role in: heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s, bowel disease, arthritis, allergies, chronic sinusitis, and even erectile dysfunction. It plays a role in 11 of the top 15 causes of death in the U.S.––and it’s getting worse. For instance, asthma and allergies are increasing at alarming rates previously unseen.
When some people think of chronic inflammation, they think of organ recipients or those with autoimmune diseases, such as Rheumatoid Arthritis, Lupus, or Multiple Sclerosis. These diseases offer the most egregious examples of high levels of chronic inflammation. In these cases, there is a blatant, ongoing attack on either the transplanted organ (which is recognized as foreign) or its own natural tissues, such as joint cartilage or nerves. Intense immuno-suppressant and anti-inflammatory drugs are required to manage such cases. In all these situations, the patient is aware that they have an issue that must be dealt with.
“One reason chronic inflammation is so dangerous is because it is silent. You can’t feel what’s happening inside your body.”
But the chronic inflammation that’s killing tens of millions of Americans each year is much more silent. There may be few to no symptoms that the person is aware of. This low-grade, long-term inflammation causes arterial walls to become “sticky” to blood fats, which can lead to plaquing and clogging (atherosclerosis). It also causes generalized achy joints, asthma, and sinusitis as well as slow degenerative changes to the brain, which eventually leads to Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. In fact, incidence of Alzheimer’s disease is growing at frightening rates. The American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine has stated that by the year 2025, Alzheimer’s will increase by 40%, reaching over 7 million people! The root of the cause? Chronic inflammation.
And what about the Big C – cancer? Over time, chronic inflammation causes cellular DNA damage and can lead to substantially increased risks of cancer. For instance, we know for a fact that people with inflammatory bowel disease are at significantly greater risk of cancer.
Symptoms of chronic inflammation can vary depending on which tissues are most affected. This varies from person to person. General, but low-level fatigue (which most people ignore) is common of chronic inflammation, as the immune system is working overtime. Gas or bloating is also a common symptom, if the gastrointestinal tract or food sensitivity is involved. Low-grade sinusitis, allergies, achy joints, and irritability can also be signs of chronic inflammation.
In standard blood tests, chronic inflammation can show up as elevated C-reactive protein (CRP), although not always. While the test is relatively inexpensive, at approximately $35, there are loads of people with asthma, chronic sinusitis, and skin conditions that have normal CRP levels. The bottom line is that a normal CRP level doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t have a problem with inflammation, but a high CRP level certainly does.
WHY IS THIS HAPPENING AT SUCH ALARMING RATES?
There are hundreds of statistics, all of which tell us that chronic inflammation is affecting more people than ever before in history, and that the future is looking worse instead of better. Why?
There are a number of reasons for this increase, many of which tie together. While the list below can seem overwhelming at first, the great news is that chronic inflammation is almost entirely preventable! The other half of that equation is that prevention typically requires people making significant lifestyle changes, making better choices, and doing things they haven’t been used to doing before (more on that later).
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