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What is Inflammation? How Can Acupuncture Be Beneficial?

what is inflammation? shown on the palm of the hand

Updated May 24th, 2024

Stupid Pain. Stupid Inflammation.

There has probably been multiple times in your life when you’ve smacked your toe or bumped your head to see the area become a slightly red, painful, and swollen. Maybe you may have been diagnosed with osteo or rheumatoid arthritis and you’re experiencing painful swollen joints? In all of those instances  inflammation plays a significant role. You may here that word tossed around often, but what exactly is inflammation?

 What is Inflammation?

Inflammation is a composition of different mechanisms that are activated by the body in response to tissue injury (Thibodeau, G. 2006. Anatomy and Physiology, fifth edition. Mosby Inc pg 142-143). Basically, it is a chain of events occurring due to damage to the cells.

The 4 Signs Of The Inflammatory Response

The Roman physician Celsus established four cardinal signs of inflammation which are:

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Redness (Rubar) – Due to increased blood flow and collection of blood at the site following injury.

Heat (Calor) – Increased blood flow in the area causes an increase in temperature. That is why the area may feel warm to the touch.

Swelling (Tumor) – Edema, which is an accumulation of fluids, occurs in the area that is affected. This includes tissue debris and inflammatory exudate, which is a collection of body fluids and inflammatory components.

Pain (Dolar) – Substances such as histamines (chemicals in the body that are sent out when the immune system reacts), serotonin (affects mood), and kinins (proteins in the blood that affect blood pressure) are released into the area that is injured and causing feelings of pain.

The Physiology Of Inflammation (What’s going on?)

When the injury occurs, first there is constriction of the blood vessels, then dilation, or expansion of the blood vessels. Compounds and different components in the blood leak out due to the increased ability for these materials to permeate or flow through in between blood vessel walls.

White blood cells begin collecting at the site of injury. White blood cells engulf or consume the bacteria in a process also known as … you ready? Phagocytosis (phag-o-sai-toh-sis … thanks to for the pronunciation) ( When dead white blood cells begin collecting at an area that has become infected, it is called pus, which is a term you may be familiar with. It is our body’s natural way of fighting bacteria and preventing further damage.

NSAIDS (NonSteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs) Phamacology

NSAIDs (NonSteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs) are used conventionally to reduce inflammation and pain. They help to block 2 enzymes called cyclooxygenase, or COX-1 and COX-2, which release chemicals in the body called prostaglandins which promote the inflammatory process. COX-1, however, creates prostaglandins that support platelet function and protect the stomach (Nonsteroidal Antiinflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) (cont.). 2015. Retrieved May 26th, 2015, from

Drugs that hinder this enzyme may cause an increase in the risk of bleeding or ulcers which may also be potentially fatal, especially in elder adults (Nonsteroidal Antiinflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) (cont.). 2015. Retrieved May 26th, 2015, from Other side effects of NSAIDs may include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, kidney, and liver failure (Nonsteroidal Antiinflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) (cont.). 2011. Retrieved January 29th, 2012, from

Inflammation and Traditional Chinese Medicine

An acupuncturist may identify inflammation as what we call bi-syndrome, particularly heat bi. This primarily affects the joints, being associated with redness, pain, and swelling (C Xinnong. Chinese Acupuncture and Moxibustion, 1999. Page 474-477). Certain diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis may fall under this category. As acupuncturists, we examine the tongue and pulse along with other signs and symptoms to gather a better idea of the main organs affected by the injury. Some diagnostic signs manifest more prominently on the tongue than pulse and vice versa.

Acupuncture and Inflammation

Acupuncture has been shown in studies to have positive anti-inflammatory effects, such as being able to increase vasoactive intestinal peptides, a molecule that has anti-inflammatory properties that is released in the body (He TF, Yang WJ, Zhang SH, Zhang CY, Li LB, Chen YF. 2011. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2011; 290489. Epub 2010 Sep 14). Acupuncture has also been shown to reduce edema and inflammations in animal studies (Li A, Lao L, Wang Y, Xin J, Ren K, Berman BM, Tan M, Zhang R. 2008. Electroacupuncture activates corticotrophin-releasing hormone-containing neurons in the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus to alleviate edema in a rat model of inflammation. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2008 May 12;8:20).

Multi-Modality Response To Treatment

Ultimately, as acupuncturists, we diagnose and treat each individual according to their own physiological disharmony and create a treatment plan best fitted for them to live in balance with their environment. We use a combination of therapies such as herbs, cupping, acupressure, gua sha (a therapy of Traditional Chinese Medicine used to induce inflammation to improve the circulation and flow of qi), breathing, and mind/body exercises to clear heat from the affected areas and improve circulation.

Foods for Inflammation

There are different foods you can incorporate into your daily meal plan to help reduce inflammation such as blueberries, avocados, chards, salmon, and walnuts (Jegtvig, S. 2011. Anti-Inflammatory Foods. Retrieved January 29th, 2012, from Cherries, berries, and green vegetables not only help with inflammation but will also improve your digestive system, provide you with more energy, and help you feel 10 times better. Unsaturated fats may also play a role in helping to reduce tissue inflammation as well (Cintra DE, Ropelle ER, Moraes JC, Pauli JR, Morari J, de Souza CT, Grimaldi R, Stahl M, Carvalheira JB, Saad MJ, Velloso LA. 2012. Unsaturated Fatty acids revert diet-induced hypothalamic inflammation in obesity. PLoS One. Epub 2012 Jan 18). Be sure to avoid greasy junk foods and eat more nutrient-dense, fresh, organic foods to aid your body in the healing process.

Hopefully this helps you to better understanding your body the magnificent ways in how we function!

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