Inflammation can have healing properties

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April 30, 2019 - 9:58 AM

What is inflammation? Inflammation comes from the Latin words “into the flame” like how moths are drawn to sustaining warmth of a springtime campfire and harmful self-destruction if they get too close. Inflammation is a natural phenomenon that can encourage sustaining healing but also harmful destruction, like a moth into the flame. 

During my first years of medical school, I was honored to spend my summers with multiple doctors practicing in Watertown, South Dakota. There, pediatrician Ebehardt Heinrichs, M.D., taught me about inflammation while we were examining a young child with acute juvenile arthritis. He pointed out how her hands showed four characteristics of inflammation famously described by Celsus, a Roman who lived at the time of Jesus. Dr. Heinrichs explained, “These are the cardinal signs of inflammation: rubor (redness), tumor (swelling), calor (heat) and dolor (pain).”

That summer, a red, swollen, hot, and painful joint found with juvenile arthritis was not the only medical condition I saw resulting from inflammation run amok. Other destructive examples included asthma, poison ivy, psoriasis, Lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis. Those years ago, I learned that we had anti-inflammatory medications to help patients with such unfortunate conditions, although side effects were considerable. In contrast, I also saw examples of how inflammation can be beneficial in fighting off invading infections such as skin abscesses, appendicitis, tonsillitis, meningitis and sinusitis. 

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