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Swelling Versus Inflammation: What’s the Difference?

The words “swelling” and “inflammation” are typically considered synonyms, however, each word has a very distinct definition and application. Inflammation is classified as a protective response from the immune system to injury, infection, or irritation. Typically, this reaction is accompanied by one or more of the following: pain, redness, loss of function, and swelling. Inflammation is the start of the healing process and is implemented to protect the body from additional injury.


Swelling can occur when a part of the body becomes inflamed. However, it is caused by the accumulation of fluid in tissues throughout the body, or in a specific region of the body. As a result, swelling can actually occur within the body without inflammation occurring. To push the parameters even more, swelling therefore cannot be used as a synonym.


Most athletes have experienced inflammation as a result of a sports injury throughout his or her career. It is almost considered to be a rite of passage in the sports world. Subsequently, an athlete may experience swelling as a result of that inflammation in a specific region of the body that was injured (for example, fluid pooling when an ankle was twisted).

In addition, many athletes and individuals may have experienced swelling with no inflammation when traveling via plane. For many, ankles and legs can swell with the shifts in cabin pressure and altitude leading to some impressive “cankles” and swollen legs post-flight. This can be considered a common example of an instance of swelling resulting without inflammation or injury.

Understanding the differences in medical terminology allows for athletes, weekend warriors, and 9 to 5 workers to better understand what processes are happening in the body. With this additional level of understanding, pains, injuries, inflammation, and swelling can be described in more depth, and subsequently, utilized appropriately with the correct meaning to better convey what is occurring in the body. Further comprehension of the body’s function can allow for better treatment options. For example, in the case of swelling, low stress, non-fatiguing muscle contractions are a great way to activate the lymphatic system to flush out waste that has built up in the tissue. This can drastically speed the rate at which excess fluid leaves the area since the lymphatic system is a passive system that relies on muscle activation to function. Learn more about Marc Pro’s technology that allows for non-fatiguing muscle contractions.