Purpose - The purpose of the present study is to examine associations between post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms and salivary cortisol parameters. Design/methodology/approach - PTSD symptoms and cortisol responses were measured in a random sample of 100 police officers. The impact of event scale (IES) categorized into subclinical, mild, moderate and severe levels was employed to measure PTSD symptoms. Cortisol was analyzed from saliva samples over a period of three days and included an awakening response, high protein lunch challenge, whole day (diurnal), and a dexamethasone suppression test (DST). Findings - Officers in moderate and severe PTSD symptom categories had higher mean awakening cortisol values. A significant sample-time by PTSD interaction (p=0.008) was found for awakening cortisol responses. Officers in the severe PTSD symptom category showed a blunted response to the cortisol protein meal challenge compared to those in lower PTSD categories. Diurnal cortisol levels suggested an increasing trend across subclinical to severe PTSD categories respectively (p=0.15 test for trend). DST ratios were lower in moderate and severe PTSD symptom categories (6.86 and 8.03 respectively) than in the subclinical and mild categories (9.32 and 10.43 respectively). Research limitations/implications - The sample was not representative of all police in the USA. These results suggest that associations between psychological trauma symptoms and dysregulation of cortisol patterns may exist and could possibly affect future health outcomes in police officers. Practical implications - Exposure to trauma and disaster events emphasizes the need to further investigate the health impact of PTSD on police personnel as well as other first responder groups. Originality/value - This article will not only be of interest to those in the police service but to the general public. The present study may serve to provide a guide for larger police population investigations on PTSD and physiological impact.
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