Nearly half of all people with heart disease also have some form of arthritis.1 That’s because arthritis is essentially an inflammatory disease and while people notice arthritis in their joints, the chronic inflammation associated with arthritis can affect the entire body.
Few people, even those with arthritis, are aware of the strong link between heart disease and painful joints. Understanding inflammation is crucial to reducing this risk, but even physicians do not always share with their patients why inflammation can be so dangerous.
How Inflammation Affects Your Body
The inflammatory response is a normal and often helpful physiological function. When an injury occurs, for example, the damaged tissue can produce a variety of chemicals that can promote healing. Acute inflammation results in warmth, redness, swelling, and loss of tissue function.
Plus, behind the scenes, microcirculatory events are helping the injured area heal. Inflammation can trigger specialized cells called macrophages to help remove the debris of dead cells while other special cells mediate healing. With an acute injury, inflammation lasts only a short time before the body puts on the brakes.
However, inflammation can go from being acute (short term) to chronic, and chronic inflammation can affect every body system. The body operates many different systems, but they are all interconnected—what happens in our joints can affect our heart, our brain, and our blood vessels. This is what makes chronic inflammation so dangerous—it can start in one place but do most of its damage in another.
Why Inflammation Can Become Chronic
There are a variety of reasons that a person can develop chronic inflammation. One of them is when the body senses an injury but that injury does not seem to ever heal. This may occur in arthritis where a damaged joint does not heal.
Other times, the body’s delicate balance between pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory mediators becomes disrupted or, as physicians say, dysregulated.2 During the COVID pandemic, we heard a lot about “cytokine storm.” Cytokines are inflammatory mediators and they get activated when the body senses the invasion of an infectious virus like COVID—but it’s possible, as we saw in severe cases of COVID, that the inflammatory process goes off the rails.
The body can easily manage short-term inflammation, but when inflammation persists, even at very low levels, it can put stress on all parts of the body. In fact, chronic inflammation is a common feature of heart disease even if the inflammation started in another part of the body.
The chemicals in the body that promote inflammation can also promote atherosclerosis or plaque build-up in the delicate blood vessel system around the heart. Atherosclerosis is the most common cause of myocardial infarction or heart attack.3 These events are sometimes called “ischemic heart attacks” because ischemia means cardiac tissue dies due to lack of oxygen—the clogged blood vessels prevent oxygen delivery.
Fighting inflammation is of enormous benefit to your heart health, which means that people with arthritis, swollen joints, or muscle pain should consider a plan of attack against persistent inflammation.
A recent study from Johns Hopkins University found that giving heart attack survivors an anti-inflammatory agent reduced the risk of a second heart attack by 15% and reduce the risk of a need for bypass surgery or stent placement by 30%.4 My interpretation of these study results is that people do not need to wait to have a heart attack before fighting chronic inflammation.
How to Reduce Your Pain & Inflammation
Inflammation in joints and muscles can be reduced with the regular use of topical products aimed at reducing pain and inflammation. Since chronic inflammation is associated with not only heart disease but also cancer, diabetes, stroke, and other serious conditions, it’s a good idea to develop a systematic plan of attack.
My anti-inflammatory plan:
- If you have joint pain, use topical pain relief creams regularly and often to keep swelling and the inflammatory response in check.
- Maintain a healthy weight and be very vigilant against visceral fat (“belly fat”) which actually helps to feed chronic inflammation. (Fat in other parts of the body is less likely to feed chronic inflammation.)
- Increase activity and work extra activity (walking extra steps, going up stairs) into your daily routine. Even moderate levels of exercise for 20 minutes a day can markedly reduce chronic inflammation.
- Eat a healthy diet which means more vegetables, fruits, and whole grains and fewer processed foods. Sugary foods, fatty foods, and ultra-processed foods feed chronic inflammation.
- If you smoke, quit.
- Ask your doctor about chronic inflammation. There are blood tests that can help measure it and your physician may have other tips individualized for your situation to help you keep chronic inflammation away.
The Bottom Line
Chronic inflammation does not necessarily produce any immediate symptoms. Many people with chronic inflammation have no idea they have it or how dangerous it can be.
If you have joint pain, particularly with some form of arthritis, there is a good chance you’re dealing with at least the potential for chronic inflammation to set in with all of its consequences. Don’t wait. Take these simple steps now.
1. Arthitis Foundation. Arthritis and Heart Disease. Arthritis Foundation. https://www.arthritis.org/health-wellness/about-arthritis/related-conditions/other-diseases/arthritis-and-heart-disease. Published 2022. Updated February 11, 2022. Accessed August 19, 2022.
2. Chen L, Deng H, Cui H, et al. Inflammatory responses and inflammation-associated diseases in organs. Oncotarget. 2018;9(6):7204-7218.
3. Jennings RB, Murry CE, Steenbergen C, Jr., Reimer KA. Development of cell injury in sustained acute ischemia. Circulation. 1990;82(3 Suppl):Ii2-12.
4. Ridker PM, Everett BM, Thuren T, et al. Antiinflammatory Therapy with Canakinumab for Atherosclerotic Disease. The New England Journal of Medicine, 21 September 2017, Vol377(12), pp1119-1131. 2017.