Battling Long COVID and How Physical Therapy can Help

By: Dr. Jill Murphy, DPT, LAT, CSCS

Becoming symptomatic and getting a positive test result for COVID-19 are tough enough, but for some 5-20% of patients battling COVID-19, fighting the virus results in much longer misery than a 7 to 14-days.  For these patients, even though they may later test negative for the virus itself, the symptoms of headaches, fatigue, brain fog, shortness of breath, joint pain, chest pain, cough, depression, heart palpitations, muscle pain, intermittent fever, fast heart rate, lightheadedness, sleep disturbance, and loss of taste and smell do not simply go away.  Recognize that even as symptoms do improve, it is not unusual for simply returning to a desk job at work or doing prolonged computer work at home to cause some symptoms to return as you recover.  Even mild cases of COVID can impact the heart, lungs, and brain negatively, with symptoms lasting for months versus the week or two impact of a typical COVID case.

If your COVID-19 symptoms are lingering more than 4 weeks after the first positive test, you should first work with your primary doctor or internist, as some of the lingering symptoms can be managed with simple solutions.  For brain, heart, or lung symptoms that linger, consider asking for a referral to a neurologist, cardiologist, or pulmonologist, respectively.  Special tests will be ordered to further evaluate the lingering symptoms and identify the pathological process at play. 

If you have already discussed lingering symptoms with your family physician and are still struggling with daily function, there are long COVID clinics available in hospital systems throughout Wisconsin.  This is a good first place to start receiving specialized care from physicians who have seen cases like yours.  Check out the DHS website to discover local facilities in your area that have special long COVID clinics at https://www.dhs.wisconsin.gov/covid-19/long-covid.htm.  

If you have recently had COVID and are itching to start back in a vigorous exercise routine, please consult with a physician if you are experiencing cough, shortness of breath, lightheadedness, excessively high heart rate that is making exercise difficult, and/or palpitations during or after exercise.  COVID-19 is known to cause inflammation of the heart as well as fibrotic changes to the lungs.  If these are symptomatic, this is a sign to stop exercising and consult with a physician specialist to prevent further damage from occurring.  The tests that will be ordered by the physician will help guide your recovery and determine when it is safe for you to resume aerobic exercise.  Continuing to exercise while experiencing these symptoms can result in permanent lung and/or heart damage, so this should definitely be avoided.

For patients with lingering headaches, light sensitivity, fatigue, insomnia, and brain fog that make returning to normal daily activities and the workplace difficult or impossible, we do know that an individualized physical therapy treatment plan addressing these symptoms can help.  Effective physical therapy treatments for COVID long haulers include manual therapy, posture education, dry needling, flexibility exercises, light aerobic exercise, strengthening exercises, pacing, and functional activity training.  Contact MotionWorks Physical Therapy at 920-215-2050 to schedule your initial evaluation where our experienced, caring physical therapists will listen to your symptoms that are impacting your function and devise an individualized treatment plan to assist your nervous system and overall body in returning to normal.