We often hear about inflammation as a result of trauma and infections. This is acute inflammation, and it is the most commonly recognized but not the only type.
We’re used to experiencing pain, swelling, and reddening of the skin as signs of inflammation.
But when inflammation becomes a chronic, long-term problem, it is different and often leads to degenerative ailments.
Not everybody knows about chronic inflammation, but it is a common problem that we need to address.
It is often behind chronic diseases such as Crohn’s disease, diabetes, and inflammatory arthritis.
In this article, we’re covering the topic and unveiling 11 symptoms that people often do not relate to inflammation.
We’re telling you why they are so important and what tools we have against a chronic inflammatory process.
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What is chronic inflammation?
Inflammation is a natural process and very useful for immunity. It is a part of the immune response against pathogens and protects the body in case of infection.
There are plenty of inflammatory substances, cytokines, and they modulate inflammation. Some of them trigger this process, while others relieve its symptoms.
Acute inflammation is the most common type, characterized by swelling and pain.
Chronic inflammation is also known as systemic inflammation, and it is often widespread throughout the body. It is initially not as severe as an acute process but has more long-term consequences. Thus, it is also known as low-grade inflammation (1).
In chronic inflammation, patients have a higher level of inflammatory markers in the blood. They are held for a long time and trigger an inflammatory process in different parts of the body simultaneously.
In some organs, inflammation held for a long time will have multiple consequences, even in a low grade. For example, it promotes pancreatic problems and type 2 diabetes. It speeds up cancer growth.
Brain inflammation is behind Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. The consequences are not immediate, which gives us enough time to detect the problem and look for professional help (1,2).
Chronic Inflammation Symptoms
How can you detect this chronic health problem? Here’s a list of signs and symptoms often reported by patients with low-grade chronic inflammation (2).
1) Joint pain
Rheumatoid arthritis is one of the most popular joint pain conditions. It is an autoimmune disease featuring severe inflammation in the articulations. You may not have rheumatoid arthritis but still have frequent episodes of joint pain. In some cases, we can link these symptoms with chronic inflammation.
There is a type of inflammatory arthritis, osteoarthritis, which features mechanic inflammation and significant pain. It happens in adults and young people, too. Studies show that inflammation can be a hidden trigger of this type of arthritis (3).
The allergy process is interconnected with inflammation in many ways. Thus, allergic patients have an overactive immune system and a propensity to inflammation.
When it comes to inflammation, one of the most critical allergic events is asthma. It features chronic inflammation that remodels the airways and causes thick mucus, difficulty to breathe, cough, and other symptoms.
Allergic asthma is described as a chronic inflammatory disorder. The hyper-responsiveness of the airways causes it. More than that, it may be a sign of higher susceptibility to chronic inflammation (4).
3) Cardiovascular disease
Atherosclerosis is one of the most common cardiovascular problems. Some people have fat plaques in their arteries without even knowing, and they may remain asymptomatic for some time. But then, one day, the plaque ruptures, and it causes a thrombotic event. This is a common cause of heart attacks and stroke, and it is a sign of chronic inflammation.
To fully develop, fat plaques need ongoing inflammation and cytokines. We also know that inflammation plays a role in the development of heart disease.
LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) has a significant role, but it would be almost harmless in the absence of inflammation (5).
4) Unexplained pain
There is a pain syndrome, fibromyalgia, in which patients feel pain from stimuli that usually do not trigger that sensation.
For example, simple pressure or superficial touch. Nerves perceive inflammation as a red alert. Something is harming our tissues and causing an inflammatory response, or so it seems. Thus, your body reacts by triggering pain to prompt a rapid response and solve the problem (6).
5) A lower pain threshold
You may not have a very complex problem such as fibromyalgia. But you could simply have a lower pain threshold. In other words, you’re more susceptible to pain than other people.
This is also a sign of inflammation. In this case, your nerve terminals are previously sensitized by inflammatory cytokines. Thus, an action potential starts very rapidly and with minimal stimuli, causing pain or making it worse (7).
6) Low energy levels
In almost every case of chronic disease, patients tend to feel tiredness and fatigue. Inflammation is usually one of the primary triggers. This is evident in rheumatoid arthritis. These patients often feel tired and have low energy levels.
But when inflammatory cytokines are targeted as a part of their therapy, their energy levels improve significantly. Thus, if you often feel tired and have unexplained pain, it is a good idea to talk to your doctor (8).
7) Uncomfortable abdominal symptoms
Patients with inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis) have a long-standing inflammation in the gut. They often feel bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and other symptoms.
They may also have nutrient absorption and deficiency problems. Their risk of colorectal cancer and intestinal fibrosis is higher than usual, linked to inflammation (9).
8) Accelerated tumor growth
Chronic inflammation has a significant role in almost every step of cancer. Inflammation can even turn benign lesions into cancer. It causes damage to cells and progressive degeneration in the affected tissue.
In the end, inflammation also increases the blood flow in cancer, feeding the tumor and accelerating its growth (10).
9) Depressive episodes
In chronic disease patients, there is also a propensity to have mood swings and depression. Living with chronic pain, losing our health and quality of life will likely cause depression.
However, inflammation may also play a significant role. It causes gradual changes to the brain chemistry, and recent studies explain a link between inflammation, pain, and depression in these patients (8).
10) Memory loss
In the brain, inflammation links to neurodegenerative disease. It triggers different types of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. Inflammation helps to build senile plaques in the brain. They slowly impair our cognitive function and cause memory loss (11).
11) Accelerated aging
Different age-related diseases have in common inflammatory pathogenesis. In other words, inflammation triggers many characteristics we often see in older adults. Thus, inflammation in young people may cause age-related symptoms such as joint pain, memory loss, and fatigue.
Moreover, it may also affect our muscle mass and skin elasticity, inducing accelerated aging in young adults (12,13).
What causes chronic inflammation?
Inflammation is inevitable for anyone with an active immune system. But acute inflammation is self-limited without long-term implications.
Chronic inflammation is different, but why is your body inflamed for such a long time? You may develop chronic inflammation for many reasons.
Here’s a list with the most important causes (2).
The metabolic syndrome
Obesity equals inflammation because fat cells produce inflammatory cytokines. The more adipocytes you have, the more cytokines you will produce. That’s why overweight patients and those with insulin resistance tend to have chronic inflammation.
Severe and chronic stress
Stress is a source of inflammation when it is very intense or maintained for a long time. It can link to stress that took place during childhood or a post-traumatic stress experience.
Patients who endure one infection after the other develop an ongoing inflammatory process that falls in the category of chronic inflammation. We can also have chronic inflammation in patients with repeated tissue damage, but this type is localized in a particular area.
Patients with asthma, allergies, rheumatoid arthritis, and inflammatory bowel disease develop ongoing inflammation as a part of their disease.
Toxins and pollutants
They include pesticides, lead, flame retardants, and other environmental poisons. Studies also show that microplastics may trigger inflammation in the body.
Treating chronic inflammation
Is there anything we can do against inflammation? You can choose a combination of tools in your favor:
Moderate exercise has anti-inflammatory potential. You only need to stay away from the extremes. Not too much, but not being sedentary, either (14).
We can also eat more anti-inflammatory substances and avoid others that promote inflammation. Excellent anti-inflammatory foods include leafy greens, garlic, spirulina, dark berries, and omega-3 sources.
Learn more about the anti-inflammatory diet and how it can reduce your risk of prostate cancer.
Besides improving inflammation, managing stress may also reduce insomnia and anxiety problems.
Ditching bad habits
We should name smoking as the most inflammatory habit. Drinking too much won’t contribute to your health either.
Talking to your doctor
Chronic inflammatory diseases often require medical assistance in some cases. Thus, it will be wise to speak with your doctor if you relate to any of the chronic inflammation symptoms listed above.
Chronic inflammation is a widespread and internal inflammation. It comes from immune cells doing their defense work. However, inflammatory cells often damage healthy tissue.
This inflammatory condition often causes pain symptoms, mood swings, fatigue, cardiovascular problems, allergies, and abdominal symptoms. In the long-term, it may also contribute to cancer development, accelerated aging, and dementia.
We can counter inflammatory molecules by quitting habits such as drinking too much and smoking, eating a healthier diet, and exercising moderately.
It is imperative to talk to your doctor, especially if you suspect a chronic condition such as irritable bowel syndrome and rheumatoid arthritis.