The Inflammatory Response to Skeletal Muscle Injury

Illuminating Complexities


Injury of skeletal muscle, and especially mechanically induced damage such as contusion injury, frequently occurs in contact sports, as well as in accidental contact sports, such as hockey and squash. The large variations with regard to injury severity and affected muscle group, as well as nonspecificity of reported symptoms, complicate research aimed at finding suitable treatments. Therefore, in order to increase the chances of finding a successful treatment, it is important to understand the underlying mechanisms inherent to this type of skeletal muscle injury and the cellular processes involved in muscle healing following a contusion injury.

Arguably the most important of these processes is inflammation since it is a consistent and lasting response. The inflammatory response is dependent on two factors, namely the extent of actual physical damage and the degree of muscle vascularization at the time of injury. However, long-term antiinflammatory treatment is not necessarily effective in promoting healing, as indicated by various studies on NSAID treatment. Because of the factors named earlier, human studies on the inflammatory response to contusion injury are limited, but several experimental animal models have been designed to study muscle damage and regeneration.

The early recovery phase is characterized by the overlapping processes of inflammation and occurrence of secondary damage. Although neutrophil infiltration has been named as a contributor to the latter, no clear evidence exists to support this claim. Macrophages, although forming part of the inflammatory response, have been shown to have a role in recovery, rather than in exacerbating secondary damage. Several probable roles for this cell type in the second phase of recovery, involving resolution processes, have been identified and include the following: (i) phagocytosis to remove cellular debris; (ii) switching from a pro- to anti-inflammatory phenotype in regenerating muscle; (iii) preventing muscle cells from undergoing apoptosis; (iv) releasing factors to promote muscle precursor cell activation and growth; and (v) secretion of cytokines and growth factors to facilitate vascular and muscle fibre repair. These many different roles suggest that a single treatment with one specific target cell population (e.g. neutrophils, macrophages or satellite cells) may not be equally effective in all phases of the post-injury response.

To find the optimal targeted, but time-course-dependent, treatments requires substantial further investigations. However, the techniques currently used to induce mechanical injury vary considerably in terms of invasiveness, tools used to induce injury, muscle group selected for injury and contractile status of the muscle, all of which have an influence on the immune and/or cytokine responses. This makes interpretation of the complex responses more difficult. After our review of the literature, we propose that a standardized non-invasive contusion injury is the ideal model for investigations into the immune responses to mechanical skeletal muscle injury. Despite its suitability as a model, the currently available literature with respect to the inflammatory response to injury using contusion models is largely inadequate.

Therefore, it may be premature to investigate highly targeted therapies, which may ultimately prove more effective in decreasing athlete recovery time than current therapies that are either not phase-specific, or not administered in a phase-specific fashion.

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No sources of funding were used to assist in the preparation of this review. The authors have no conflicts of interest that are directly relevant to the content of this review. No other persons beside the authors contributed to this review.

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Correspondence to Dr Carine Smith.

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Smith, C., Kruger, M.J., Smith, R.M. et al. The Inflammatory Response to Skeletal Muscle Injury. Sports Med 38, 947–969 (2008).

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  • Satellite Cell
  • Muscle Injury
  • Muscle Regeneration
  • Secondary Damage
  • Impact Surface