Long-Haul COVID-19 Recovery and Treatment
A Physical and Mental Health Perspective
It's been a year since COVID-19 began spreading in the U.S. As the world continues to learn more about the virus's impact on the body, we're also becoming keenly aware of how physical therapy can help in post COVID-19 recovery.
For what are being referred to as long-haul patients and those who spend prolonged periods in the ICU, physical therapists can help patients return to the physical activities they were able to do before becoming ill from the virus.
Long-Haul Patients Face Unique Challenges.
For a majority of COVID-19 patients, symptoms remain mild and dissipate after 14-21 days. But an estimated 10% to 35% report symptoms like shortness of breath and muscle weakness that lasts for months. For those experiencing long-haul symptoms, their hospital and recovery time is much longer than other COVID-19 patients, often requiring additional rehabilitation to address the ongoing physical complications. It's frightening to feel ongoing fatigue and symptoms months after the initial diagnosis. Anxiety and depression can easily set in, especially if a patient's lifestyle, finances, or relationships are being negatively impacted. Continued care and assessment by physicians and mental health therapists is necessary to help long-haul patients recover and deal with their on-going challenges.
Patient ages range from 13 to 90, with an average age of 56. Continued care and assessment from a range of physicians and therapists is necessary to help long haul patients.
How Can Long-Haul Patients be Helped?
According to Agile Virtual Care, a virtual telehealth physical therapy organization, when addressing the physical symptoms-such as coughing, ongoing fatigue (struggling to stand up, wash dishes, ect), joint pain, shortness of breath, difficulty sleeping, brian fog, and headaches-intervention by a physical therapist is an emerging treatment for long-haulers. Agile's comprehensive recovery program is research-backed and focuses on improving respiratory and neurological capacity along with overall mobility. This program is designed specifically for each patient and can be offered virtually or in-person, through a partner clinic or at-home. If patients are recovering from the coronavirus, a hospitalization, or following stay-at-home quarantine recovery from any form of illness, a program of this type can cater to their needs and help to improve their functional ability.
How Soon Can Patients be Treated?
To be treated in the clinic or at home, patients must have medical clearance according to CDC guidelines, go at least 72 hours without a fever, demonstrate improvement in respiratory symptoms, and be at least ten days from the onset of symptoms. Agile Virtual Care's program treats shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, respiratory recovery, decreased mobility and ability to walk, overall weakness and generalized deconditioning, pain, joint stiffness, and other musculoskeletal conditions as well as balance and neurological challenges and worsening of comorbidities. But, that only addresses half of the problem.
Addressing Mental Health and Well-Being.
There is no question that the pandemic is taking its toll on everyone. So whether you have had COVID-19, are concerned about getting COVID-19, or suffer from long-haul symptoms, these unprecedented times are challenging for us all. How then, do we take care of our mental health and well-being when we're concerned about an uncertain future?
Recognizing the stress and hardships we are all experiencing is a good place to start. Then attempt to prioritize small tasks that will aid your mental and physical health. Something as seemingly trivial as a phone call with a loved one, reading a good book, or going out for a run can be enough to reset. But in some cases, in particular for those dealing with long-haul symptoms, when the emotional burden has begun to overwhelm, connecting to an online COVID-19 support group or engaging in a therapeutic relationship with a licensed mental health professional, either on-line or in-person, might be just what the doctor ordered.
Suffering long-term symptoms after being infected with COVID-19 affects a patient's mental as well as their physical well-being. Treating the physical symptoms alone without addressing a patient's mental health issues might not be enough to lead them on a path to full recovery. According to research published November 2020 in The Lancet, an estimated 20% of people who contract COVID-19 meet the diagnostic criteria for a mental health issue such as anxiety or depression within 3 months of diagnosis. Not surprisingly, the longer a patient is symptomatic, the greater the probability of diagnosis. According to Mark Czeisler, an author of the CDC study Mental Health, Substance Use, and Suicidal Ideation During the Pandemic, The public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic needs to include addressing its mental health consequences. Otherwise, those consequences could exacerbate the physical symptoms long-haulers experience.
As a society, we are experiencing the affects of a lasting pandemic not seen since the Spanish Flu. With any luck, one positive byproduct of the collective COVID-19 experience will be an acceptance of a more holistic, integrative approach to patient wellness - physical and mental health therapies included.