The moth into the flame
By Richard P. Holm, M.D.
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.
Beyond this older and established knowledge, researchers have recently learned that beneficial muscle growth comes as a response to localized mild inflammation that follows exercise. Other studies show that low-intensity training, like walking, can reduce harmful chronic inflammation. All-in-all not only can our bodies be harmed when self-destructive inflammation turns against our own cells, but our bodies can be protected and even sculpted by the yin and yang of balanced and healthy inflammation.
Recently, researchers have learned of another yin and yang. We know that our bodies can recognize and remove, by inflammation, tiny cancers that pop up periodically. On the other hand, certain cancers can grow because of inflammation. This later finding has allowed for even more new therapies.
There have been great improvements in medicines relating to inflammation, compared to what we had during those early Watertown days. We can now, more effectively and with fewer side-effects, turn off harmful targets of inflammation, cool crippling arthritis, sooth devastating rashes and even, when used correctly, shrink certain cancers.
Rubor, tumor, calor, dolor . . . like a moth attracted to a sustaining or harmful springtime campfire.
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