If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know how the inflammation that underlies gum disease can hurt your overall health. Yet as we noted last week, short term – acute – inflammation is an essential bodily process.
But what actually happens during inflammation and why is it necessary? Registered Dental Hygienist JoAnn R. Gurenlian offers a concise overview:
Inflammation is the body’s response to cellular injury. Despite the fact that the press has emphasized the harmful effects of inflammation, the fact remains that without this process, our bodies could not survive. Inflammation represents a protective response designed to rid the body of the initial cause of cell injury and the consequences of that injury. Cell injury may occur due to trauma, genetic defects, physical and chemical agents, tissue necrosis, foreign bodies, immune reactions and infections.
Inflammation is a local reactive change that involves the release of antibacterial agents from nearby cells that defend the host against infection. It also facilitates early tissue healing and repair. It contains—or “walls off ”—the infectious or injurious agent and serves as a defense mechanism that the body can use to restore itself to a normal morphological form and function.
The symptoms at the affected area include redness, swelling, heat, pain, and loss of function.
The redness is caused by increased blood flow to the inflamed area. The local blood vessels enlarge to allow your body to respond to the injury with cells and other materials needed for repair and healing.
The swelling is caused by fluid buildup at the site, which is facilitated by an opening up of the capillaries. By allowing more fluid to flow between the cells and tissues, the immune system and healing agents are more able to reach and act upon the damage in the affected area.
The heat is mostly a result of the increased blood flow, but the action of other inflammatory agents also contributes to this effect.
Inflammation causes pain at as nerves and pain receptors are stretched by the increased blood flow and fluid buildup. Some of the inflammatory agents also increase the sensation of pain.
The loss of function has many causes and helps protect the affected area from further damage.
There are whole-body inflammatory effects, as well. These include fever, an increase in circulating white blood cells, and an increase of acute-phase inflammatory proteins in the blood.
The immune system helps facilitate the destruction of any infectious agents at the affected site. Macrophages arrive to clean up any dead cells and other debris. The swelling and increased blood flow allow for increased delivery of oxygen and nutrients as well as repair cells and molecules. Swelling also helps to dilute any toxins.
The benefits of short-term inflammation can best be understood by looking at some specific examples, such as the swelling that happens after a bee sting. The swelling caused by the inflammation seals off the area, protects it, and dilutes the toxin. Various agents then arrive to break down the toxin.
Similarly, the swelling that quickly happens after a sprain serves kind of like a cast.
This inflammation keeps the area tight and immobile—preventing further injury. It’s also painful, which stops you from putting weight on the injured area and aggravating it.
In the case of gum disease, then, inflammation is present as your immune system tries to fight off the infectious bacteria and heal the damage that they have done.
Inflammation is an emergency response, and some of its agents also have harmful side effects. When the inflammation is short-lived, they’re not a big issue. But when inflammation goes on too long and becomes chronic, these side effects become a bigger problem – one that we’ll look at more closely next week, in the next installment of this series.
Image by SuperManu