First and foremost, inflammation, far from being a bad thing we should try to get rid of, is a key part of the healing process. If we injure ourselves, perhaps spraining our ankle or banging our elbow, our body will naturally increase the blood flow to the injured area, which of course makes it look red and feel warm (blood being red and warm!) Local blood vessels will become more porous, which leads to fluid leaking out of them and causing some swelling. So the area of the injury becomes warm, red and swollen - Inflamed. Similarly if we catch the ‘flu, inflammation is part of the body’s immune response to the ‘flu virus, which is the reason why we ache all over; there is some inflammation going on in our muscles and joints.
So the inflammatory process is part of the way our body both protects itself, for example by attacking any invading microorganisms, and if necessary initiating tissue repair. In the case of the sprained ankle, it also usually forces us to rest the injured area, which is what is required: pain has its purpose
This raises an interesting question as to whether anti-inflammatory treatment, as with anti-inflammatory drugs, is always an entirely good idea. If the inflammatory process is part of the way the body protects and heals itself, then are we not impairing that protection and healing if we take anti-inflammatories? Probably it is a matter of striking a balance: if such drugs take the edge off a severe pain that is driving us up the wall and stopping us sleeping, then fair enough; but if we become accustomed to taking anti-inflammatories at the slightest hint of discomfort, we should ask ourselves if we really know what we are doing. It’s also worth remembering that pain is information; it is telling us, for instance, to rest or avoid putting weight on an injured ankle. Just wiping out any pain as soon as it arises is to ignore potentially useful, even vital, information.
However, whilst inflammation is normally a good thing, if uncomfortable, it can sometimes get out of hand. This is what happens, for instance, in some auto-immune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis; the inflammatory response is switched on despite the absence of any real injury, because the immune system mistakenly identifies some of the body’s’ own tissues as enemies to be attacked. And once it is on, it stays on, or keeps getting switched on. So inflammation, which is normally a good thing, becomes a distinct pain in the neck and in a lot of other places as well.
So we can distinguish between acute and chronic inflammation. Acute inflammation is the body’s natural short-term response to an injury or infection; chronic inflammation arises when that response becomes constant or recurring in the absence of an injury or infection. As well as auto-immune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis and Crohns’disease, chronic inflammation is thought to be a factor in a wide range of other problems such including asthma, diabetes, some forms of cancer and even depression.
Dealing with chronic inflammation is not easy. Anti-inflammatory drugs may sometimes help, but they are far from being the answer, not least because of their unfortunate side-effects. However, given that inflammation has been going on, for better or for worse, for the entire history of the human race, it might be worth asking about traditional remedies for excessive or chronic inflammation. Traditional Chinese Medicine, for instance, has a number of such strategies, not least because of its association with martial arts, whose devotees are obviously prone to the odd traumatic injury. But perhaps the most valuable of these treatments is something called Gua Sha.
Gua Sha is a type of massage in which a special tool (but sometimes not so special – people use jam jar lids and coins, amongst other things!) is used to scrape along the surface of the part of the body in question, subsequent to the application of a suitable massage oil. This typically produces a pattern of small red dots under the skin called petechiae, which are in fact small traces of blood which have been temporarily forced out of tiny blood vessels near the surface of the skin. In a short period of time these fade into a general redness, which gradually disappears over the next few hours or days as the blood returns to the blood vessels.
This has been traditionally used throughout East Asia to treat a wide variety of problems including musculoskeletal injury, bronchitis, the common cold and fever. Modern research is revealing that along with an increase in local circulation gua sha produces an anti-inflammatory effect. This effect is present not just in the surface tissue where the treatment has been applied, but reaches down into deeper levels of the body, right to the organ systems. So for instance, gua sha applied to the upper back can combat inflammation in the lungs, which is why it can be used to treat inflammatory lung problems such as bronchitis and asthma. Applied over the surface of the body in the vicinity of the liver, it is used in China to treat both chronic and acute hepatitis (inflammation of the liver).
So, if you come for acupuncture treatment for any condition that involves inflammation , but especially chronic inflammation, don’t be surprised if we suggest gua sha as a treatment option in addition to acupuncture. You will need to be aware (and we will make sure you are!) that the skin in the area of treatment will be temporarily altered in appearance, perhaps as much as in the above picture, which may mean the treatment is contraindicated for glamour models and people wanting to show their body off on a beach holiday. But if you are one of those people who suffer from chronic inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, hepatitis, Crohn’s disease, and pelvic inflammatory disease, you can probably put up with a patch of temporary redness for a few days.