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You may be wondering why a Sports Therapist would write a blog about stress. I think there is still a stigma attached to the word “stress”, and certainly in clinic it’s one of the last pieces of information that people think to offer up, as if it’s irrelevant, or no-ones business. Here I will look at how stress can be a very real, relevant and physical thing.

A little bit of science talk first; your body naturally produces a hormone called cortisol which is produced in the cortex of the adrenal glands. Cortisol is key in regulating our body and assists in controlling blood pressure, cardiovascular functions, and our body’s use of fats, proteins and carbohydrates. It is not too disimilar to adrenaline. Cortisol is your friend that protects you when you are challenged. It slows down body processes which are not needed for immediate protection and enhances those which are. When fit and healthy, our cortisol levels are high first thing in the morning and low at night.

When you’re feeling stressed, however, your body secretes more cortisol, hence cortisol is frequently referred to as the “stress hormone”, and is also involved in – importantly – the bodies inflammatory response. In ‘Explain Pain’, David Butler and Lorimer Moseley say that “…continued, persistent altered levels of cortisol has been linked to slow healing, poor healing, loss of memory, loss of libido, depression, despair and a decline in physical performance.”

In a study titled “Individual differences in the peripheral immune system promote resilience versus susceptibility to social stress” – it argues that “…depression and anxiety have been linked to increased inflammation” (Reference 1).

In this study, “The stress model of chronic pain: evidence from basal cortisol and hippocampal structure and function in humans”, it is shown that “…patients with chronic back pain have higher levels of cortisol than control subjects” (Reference 2)

From this research we can see the potential for an unpleasant cyclical routine of pain-stress-pain…


Cortisol has also been linked to weight gain, as “…the problem is we often deal with stress mentally, and never respond to stress with physical activity that would burn the extra energy provided by the cortisol surge. Whether your stress was emotional or physical, the stress response is identical, causing a spike in your appetite. This can cause a craving for comfort foods-foods high in fat and sugar.” (Reference 3).

So if you’ve ever wondered why your bad back feels worse first thing in the morning, or why your neck pain always seems worse when you have a deadline looming, or even why those cookies look more inviting when the kids are screaming, it could be that a certain hormone is at work.

My advice is similar to many things; feeling stressed? Move away from the sweets and get active! It doesnt take much, a brisk walk to the shops for example can make big differences (“….low intensity exercise actually resulted in a reduction in circulating cortisol levels.” Reference 4).

Of course, failing that there is another hormone we can take advantage of. Back to Butler and Moseley in ‘Explain Pain’; “…Oxytocin is another hormone which affects the body in many ways, including relieving pain and preventing weight gain. It’s easy to make – love someone, even look at someone you love, give them a hug. If you pat a dog or a cat, you’ll both get a blast of oxytocin…” 


N.B. There are no ‘one size fits all’ style quick fixes in most injury scenarios, so these article shouldn’t be seen as such. They are merely guides to a better understanding of how our bodies work.
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