Stress Impairs Your Ability to Heal

Zachary Walston

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Given we are at the one-year mark of a global pandemic, stress is not hard to find. Take the pandemic away, and we still have jobs, family life, politics, and sports (if you are a Cleveland sports fan) to heighten our stress.

Not to layer on, but did you know stress can impair your ability to heal.

Studies assessing wound healing models and outcomes show there is an average correlation of −.42 between psychological stress and wound healing. That value is a moderate correlation. While correlation does not equal caution - the number of pirates in the world is negatively correlated with the number of computers of the past 50 years - the high volume of studies allows us to be pretty confident the relationship is true.

So what does this mean for you?

If you participate in athletics - either organized sports or local 5K races - and are injured, stress can delay your recovery time. If you suffer an injury and look up information online, you will find average timelines.

The website pull information from textbooks and studies that report average healing times for injuries and surgery compiled large data sets. If you combine all the studies available, the average ankle sprain will become pain-free in less than two weeks. Throw in high levels of stress, that timeline could lengthen.

Individual characteristics such as age, gender, comorbidities, cardiovascular fitness, nutritional status, chronicity, expectations, and psychological stress all affect healing time.

Psychological stress has many drivers. For example, the presence of pain is associated with delayed wound healing. People with depressive symptoms are 3.6 times more likely to experience delayed wound healing relative to controls. During examination week, dental students took 40% longer to heal from an experimental wound than when they were on vacation. Even stressful careers, such as being a caregiver, can delay wound healing by 24%.

This does not mean if you have a stressful career, are pursuing medical school, or suffer from depression you are doomed to a life of poor healing capacity, rather, these studies provide valuable information that can be used to make actionable plans.

You can approach the information on two fronts. The first is acknowledging the delay the current situation will cause. If you are injured, plan accordingly with your doctor and physical therapist. Develop realistic expectations.

Second, address the risk factors you can modify. There are many activities and strategies you can use to modify stress. Pursue the strategies that work best for you.

Whenever you seek medical care, be sure to develop a personalized strategy. Your doctor or physical therapist should never adopt a one-size-fits-all approach. This research is more evidence that many factors influence our body and health.

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I am a physical therapist, researcher, and educator whose mission is to challenge health misinformation. You will find articles about health, fitness, medical care, psychology, and professional development on my site. As the husband of a real estate agent, you will also find real estate and housing tips.

Atlanta, GA
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