There are two types of inflammation: acute, or short-term, and chronic, or long-term. The role of inflammation is to help the body heal when an illness or injury causes damage. Although cases of acute inflammation may be uncomfortable or even painful, it is a necessary part of the healing process, and the role of inflammation is to protect the injury while summoning healing aids from the system. Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, is typically a symptom of a more serious condition, such as Crohn's disease or rheumatoid arthritis. The symptoms of inflammation, however, are often the same, regardless of the type.
As soon as the body senses that an area needs healing, it sends additional blood to the area. This process causes three of the five primary symptoms of inflammation, swelling, redness and heat. The affected area will become painful as the body attempts to notify the brain that the damaged area needs to be protected from additional harm, but areas that do not contain nerves or in which the nerves have been destroyed may be painless. Depending on the location and severity of the illness or injury, the damaged area may lose functionality and become inflexible or rigid.
In cases of acute inflammation, symptoms disappear as the irritating factor heals or is removed. As broken bones knit or cuts heal, the body begins to scale back on the amount of additional blood that is needed. If infection is causing the inflammation, destroying the infection leads to reduced inflammation. A foreign body, such as a splinter, can cause localized inflammation, which fades once the splinter is removed.
Although the basic role of inflammation is the same, the process is not as simple with chronic inflammation. In some conditions, the body fails to shut down the inflammatory response and continues its defensive attack. If there is no healing that needs to occur, the attack may focus on undamaged tissue. When this happens, the patient is typically suffering from what is called an autoimmune disease, a family of disorders that includes rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis, lupus and Crohn's disease. Researchers are also studying the role of inflammation in certain heart diseases and some types of cancer.
Treating inflammation may involve exercise or physical therapy, anti-inflammatory medications or rest. The exact nature of the treatment will depend on the cause of the inflammation. Because the role of inflammation is to assist healing, it may be necessary to treat the cause to reduce the inflammation. In cases of acute inflammation resulting from a minor injury or allergy, a little time or an antihistamine may be all the treatment needed. Patients with chronic inflammation, however, may need prescription medications and careful monitoring to reduce the possibility of the inflammation causing damage to the affected tissue.