There are approximately 3.5 million sports injuries each year in the US, with sprains and strains being the most common. Recovering from a sports injury can be stressful if all you want to do is get back to your favorite hobby, but this stress can slow down recovery times due to higher levels of cortisol in the body. Cortisol is known as the stress hormone as the body produces more of it when you experience stress, but it also helps to regulate blood sugar, electrolytes, controls inflammation, and aids fat, protein, and carbohydrate metabolism, all of which can affect recovery times.
The role of cortisol in injury recovery
When you experience stress the body anticipates that an injury will follow so produces cortisol in response as it’s a natural anti-inflammatory. However, too much stress and elevated cortisol levels can lead to weight gain, insomnia, tissue breakdown, a suppressed immune system, tissue inflammation, and other hormones getting interfered with. All of this is bad news when recovering from an injury, which is why it’s crucial to keep cortisol levels under control for a quicker recovery that doesn’t come with any other symptoms. This is backed up by a study that found that elite athletes with elevated cortisol levels had a positive correlation with symptomatology and a prolonged recovery process was more likely.
Cortisol and wound healing
Not all sports injuries are sprains or strains and some can result in wounds. Cortisol plays a big role in wound healing with research from Guo & DiPietro (2010) and Vileikyte (2007) finding that stress is linked to poor wound and tissue healing. Stress also causes the hormones prolactin and catecholamines to increase, as well as cortisol, which leads to changes in your blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels, all of which affect the healing process. Research from Godbout & Glaser, 2006, and Ross & Thomas, 2010, found that stress can cause changes to the chemicals found naturally around an injury site, which can impair immune function and healing.
Ways to manage cortisol levels
For many people, their sport is also their form of stress release, so when you’re recovering from an injury that stops you from participating in it, it’s likely that stress levels will rise. Finding an alternative form of physical exercise can offer a similar stress release and can help an injury to heal by strengthening the joints and muscles around it, providing you take it easy.
Swimming is a good option for a lot of sports injuries as it’s gentle on the body but can still give you a full workout. Sports massages are also a very good way to aid recovery, as well as helping you to de-stress. This is because massage stimulates the autonomic nervous system, which triggers positive hormones that replace cortisol, leading to less stress and cortisol and better recovery.