What Is Inflammation?

Inflammation is a process by which the body's white blood cells and substances they produce protect us from infection with foreign organisms, such as bacteria and viruses.

However, in some diseases, like arthritis, the body's defense system -- the immune system -- triggers an inflammatory response when there are no foreign invaders to fight off. In these diseases, called autoimmune diseases, the body's normally protective immune system causes damage to its own tissues. The body responds as if normal tissues are infected or somehow abnormal.

What Diseases Are Associated With Inflammation?

Some, but not all, types of arthritis are the result of misdirected inflammation. Arthritis is a general term that describes inflammation in the joints. Some types of arthritis associated with inflammation include the following:

Other painful conditions of the joints and musculoskeletal system that may not be associated with inflammation include osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, muscular low back pain, and muscular neck pain.

What Are the Symptoms of Inflammation?

Symptoms of inflammation include:

Often, only a few of these symptoms are present.

Inflammation may also be associated with general flu-like symptoms including:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Fatigue/loss of energy
  • Headaches
  • Loss of appetite
  • Muscle stiffness

What Causes Inflammation and What Are Its Effects?

When inflammation occurs, chemicals from the body's white blood cells are released into the blood or affected tissues to protect your body from foreign substances. This release of chemicals increases the blood flow to the area of injury or infection, and may result in redness and warmth. Some of the chemicals cause a leak of fluid into the tissues, resulting in swelling. This protective process may stimulate nerves and cause pain.

The increased number of cells and inflammatory substances within the joint cause irritation, swelling of the joint lining and, eventually, wearing down of cartilage (cushions at the end of bones).

How Are Inflammatory Diseases Diagnosed?

Inflammatory diseases are diagnosed after careful evaluation of the following:

  • Complete medical history and physical exam with attention to:
    • The pattern of painful joints and whether there is evidence of inflammation
    • Presence of joint stiffness in the morning
    • Evaluation of other symptoms
  • Results of X-rays and blood tests

Continued

Can Inflammation Affect Internal Organs?

Yes. Inflammation can affect organs as part of an autoimmune disorder. The type of symptoms depend on which organs are affected. For example:

Pain may not be a primary symptom of an inflammatory disease, since many organs do not have many pain-sensitive nerves. Treatment of organ inflammation is directed at the cause of inflammation whenever possible.

How Are Inflammatory Joint Diseases Treated?

There are a number of treatment options for inflammatory diseases, like arthritis, including medications, rest, exercise, and surgery to correct joint damage. The type of treatment prescribed will depend on several factors, including the type of disease, the person's age, type of medications he or she is taking, overall health, medical history, and severity of symptoms.

The goals of treatment are the following:

  • Correct, control, or slow down the underlying disease process
  • Avoid or modify activities that aggravate pain
  • Relieve pain through pain medications and anti-inflammatory drugs
  • Maintain joint movement and muscle strength through physical therapy
  • Decrease stress on the joints by using braces, splints, or canes as needed

What Drugs Are Used to Treat Inflammatory Diseases?

There are many drugs available to decrease joint pain, swelling and inflammation, and possibly prevent or minimize the progression of the inflammatory disease. They are often used in combination due to their differing effects. The medications include:

Some of these medications are also used to treat other conditions such as cancer or inflammatory bowel disease, or to reduce the risk of rejection of a transplanted organ. However, when "chemotherapy" types of medications (such as methotrexate or cyclophosphamide) are used to treat inflammatory diseases, the doses are sometimes significantly lower and the risks of side effects tend to be less than when prescribed in higher doses for cancer treatment.

When you are prescribed any medication, it is important to meet with your doctor regularly so he or she can detect the development of any side effects.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by David Zelman, MD on September 01, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:

MedlinePlus: "Arthritis."

American College of Rheumatology: "Arthritis in Children."

National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskelatal and Skin Diseases: "Arthritis."

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