Objective: This study aimed to (1) See whether increased or decreased variation relate to subjective reports of common somatic and psychological symptoms for a population on long-term sick leave; and (2) See if this pattern in variation is correlated with autonomic activation and psychological appraisal.
Methods: Our participants (n = 87) were referred to a 3.5-week return-to-work rehabilitation program, and had been on paid sick leave >8 weeks due to musculoskeletal pain, fatigue and/or common mental disorders. An extensive survey was completed, addressing socio-demographics, somatic and psychological complaints. In addition, a physician and a psychologist examined the participants, determining baseline heart rate, medication use and SCID-I diagnoses. During the 3.5-week program, the participants completed the Trier Social Stress Test for Groups. Participants wore heart rate monitors and filled out Visual Analogue Scales during the TSST-G.
Results: Our participants presented a low cortisol variation, with mixed model analyses showing a maximal increase in free saliva cortisol of 26% (95% CI, 0.21-0.32). Simultaneously, the increase in heart rate and Visual Analogue Scales was substantial, indicating autonomic and psychological activation consistent with intense stress from the Trier Social Stress Test for Groups.
Conclusions: The current findings are the first description of a blunted cortisol response in a heterogeneous group of patients on long-term sick leave. The results suggest lack of cortisol reactivity as a possible biological link involved in the pathway between stress, sustained activation and long-term sick leave.