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8 Surprising Signs of Chronic Inflammation

May 22, 2023

Stiff? Swollen? Achy?

If you can’t shake these symptoms, there’s probably more to it than everyday wear-and-tear.

“Chronic inflammation is caused by a variety of conditions and diseases, which often dictate the type of symptoms a person has,” notes Anita Chandrasekaran, MD, a rheumatologist with Hartford HealthCare Medical Group in Waterford.

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The most common symptoms

Although signs of chronic inflammation are often subtle, they’re important to catch early. Left unnoticed, this inflammation can harm healthy cells and cause significant damage to tissues and organs. And by finding the inflammation, your doctor might be able to diagnose the condition causing it.

While symptoms vary from one person to another, Dr. Chandrasekaran suggests watching for these typical signs:

  • Chronic fatigue
  • Brain fog
  • Fever
  • Joint pain/stiffness and muscle pain/weakness
  • Weight gain or loss
  • Frequent infections
  • Mood issues like anxiety and depression

“These are also symptoms we find result from non-inflammatory diseases. Osteoarthritis for example, can cause chronic joint pain but it’s a non-inflammatory, degenerative condition,” Dr. Chandrakaran explains.

> Related: These Foods Help Fight (or Cause) Chronic Inflammation

But that’s not all

Rheumatologists are trained to look beyond common symptoms and trace the cause of more atypical signs of chronic inflammation. Those include:

  • Trouble balancing
  • Insulin resistance
  • Diarrhea. A diagnosis of inflammatory bowel disease such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, as well as pancreatitis, can cause frequent bathroom trips, Dr. Chandrasekaran explains.
  • Lower back pain
  • Bleeding gums. This points to gum inflammation, or gingivitis, and is linked to several autoimmune diseases and increased cardiovascular risk.
  • Arteriosclerosis. Chronic inflammation, she says, is a risk factor for this condition, also known as hardening of the arteries. Inflammation triggers elevated levels of certain cytokines, or molecules released by the immune system, increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease, including heart attack and stroke.
  • Blood clotting. No matter the cause, chronic inflammation in the body also triggers hypercoagulability, or increased risk of clotting, Dr. Chandrasekaran says.
  • Dry eye. Autoimmune diseases like Sjogren’s syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus can all cause dry eyes, she says.

“Depending on the underlying cause of the inflammation – infection versus autoimmune disease versus metabolic syndrome versus neurologic disease – we’ve seen all of these symptoms in clinical care,” Dr. Chandrasekaran says.

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Find the cause

As with many conditions, providers turn to testing to determine the cause of inflammation, she continues.

“Blood work is helpful, specifically testing acute phase reactants such as sedimentation rate and C-reactive protein,” she says. “Other patients develop anemia, called anemia of chronic inflammation, high platelet count, and low albumin levels with chronic inflammation.”

A physical exam is also telling when such signs as joint inflammation and rashes are visible.