Inflammation refers to a biological response to stimuli interpreted by the body to have a potentially harmful effect. Inflammation is a normal, healthy response to injury, infections or certain other medical conditions. For example, consider how the area gets red and warm around a splinter − that’s the body’s immune system “attacking” a foreign body.
An inflammatory disorder, however, is where the immune system causes inflammation by mistakenly attacking your body’s own cells or tissues. There are a number of ways that our immune system can go wrong and cause inflammation.
In a process called “autoimmunity,” our antibodies get directed against our own cells, as in patients with rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. An example of a different way our immune system can attack our own tissues is when you have an “autoinflammatory” disease. In that case, cells produce inflammatory chemicals, without the involvement of antibodies. Gout, for example, is felt to be an autoinflammatory disease.
A healthy immune system helps the body fight disease. It makes proteins called antibodies that identify and attack substances that may harm a person. Any substance that leads a person’s immune system to make these antibodies is called an antigen. Some antigens, such as viruses and certain bacteria, may threaten a person’s health. The immune system also attacks cells in our body that have become abnormal, such as cancer cells. Unfortunately, sometimes the immune system goes wrong, and our antibodies attack our own normal cells.
The systemic inflammatory responses associated with such diseases can result in chronic pain, redness, swelling, stiffness and damage to otherwise healthy body tissues.
Doctors at Hospital for Special Surgery treat numerous autoimmune and inflammatory diseases, including:
Reviewed and updated by Theodore R. Fields, MD, FACP