Posted by: Mae | April 8, 2009

Inflammation & Healing

When tissues are exposed to stress, such as a sprain/strain, burn, or pathogen, the inflammatory response kicks in to minimize further damage and/or spread of infection. Blood and immune cells are sent to the site quickly, but aren’t allowed to leave quite so easily, and swelling results. Muscles contract into spasm to prevent further injury (“muscle splinting”), and the overall result is discomfort and loss of function.

In our more primitive days, this response served us well. Living on the land, we couldn’t just run to the doctor for surgery or pills. We didn’t have access to splints and bandages, let alone antibiotics. But now, we are used to a higher quality of life, and want to return to our normal living activities quickly and comfortably. We want to minimize the inflammation and speed healing.

As we move from the acute stage of inflammation towards healing, changes are taking place. White blood cells are drawn to the site to kill remaining pathogens as well as to digest dead or damaged cells. This is the stage where pus is formed, though it is usually contained by connective tissue, and you may not even realize it’s there. Collagen-producing cells (“fibroblasts”) are also coming to the site to bring damaged tissues back together and fill in any gaps. At this stage, the new tissue is still rather delicate, and can be easily reinjured. Eventually the fibers increase, becoming stronger. At this stage, depending on the type of injury, massage, physical therapy, and other treatments can help these fibers align in the direction of forces put on it (as opposed to their normal random criss-crossing pattern), which will reduce any restrictions in movement of skin, muscles, or ligaments that can lead to a more permanent loss of function.

The healing stage begins about a week after the injury, and can last from 2 weeks to 2 years, depending on a number of factors, including the general health of the injured person. There are a number of things you can do to shorten healing time, and maximize the quality of the new tissue. Two of the easiest are eating well, and getting adequate sleep.

Many people don’t realize it, but most of our healing takes place while we sleep. Growth hormone, which directs the cells to reproduce, is secreted in the greatest amounts while we sleep. Good, quality, uninterrupted sleep is what you are after. Retire before you are exhausted, if possible, and sleep usually comes easier. Aim for 6-8 hours per night. If you wake refreshed, and not groggy, you are getting good sleep.

(As a side note, many people in our society are chronically “stressed out” or anxious, with high levels of stress hormones like cortisol, that make it difficult to relax and sleep well. Massage has been shown to reduce these hormones, as well as create a general sense of well-being, and is beneficial for insomnia.)

Eating good food may be difficult as well, as we get so many conflicting messages about what to eat and what to avoid. As a general rule for healing, aim to eat foods that are unprocessed, or minimally so. Good quality proteins like fish give your body the “stuff” it needs to create new cells. Fish is also high in Omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to reduce inflammation and pain. Vitamin C and other anti-oxidants, found in many fresh fruits and vegetables, has long been believed to speed healing.  Berries, leafy greens, apples, and onions are all great choices. Many of these contain quercetin as well, another phyto (“plant”)-chemical that studies say is a great weapon against inflammation (including mild allergic reactions).

Common spices have been studied, and found to have anti-inflammatory properties as well. The most notable are ginger, tumeric, garlic, and cayenne (and other hot) pepper. Some of these are available as supplements as well, but try to add them to your food first, as large quantities of these medicinal spices can have adverse effects in some individuals. (I recommend talking to a medical or naturopathic doctor, herbalist, licensed acupuncturist, or dietitian before using supplements.)

Experts warn against excess sugar, processed foods, and red meat, as these can increase acids in your body that irritate tissues and increase inflammation.  Arachidonic acid is a notable example. Processed meats like sausage, ham, and bacon often contain nitrites as well, which have also been shown to increase inflammation and have a detrimental effect on health.

Remember, the most important fluid your body needs is water. Water is in and around every cell in our body–lubricating joints, carrying waste away, and bringing nutrients in water-rich blood. Experts disagree on how much water one should drink, and what types of beverages “count” as water (ie: alcoholic and caffeinated beverages can be dehydrating), but in general, drink when you are thirsty, and choose plain water, high quality fruit juices (beware excess natural sugars), and herbal infusions.

Never hesitate to talk to your therapist about pain you are feeling. One of our greatest goals is to decrease pain, and increase health. Massage may not hold all the answers, but therapists usually know a team of people who can work together to get you feeling better!

Links to more information:

General anti-inflammatory dietary info:

Specific herbs/supplements:


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