You’ve probably heard the term “Long COVID” which is defined as any symptoms or conditions that linger after a SARS-CoV-2 infection. Long COVID can even include new conditions that develop as a result of that infection, and the symptoms may last weeks, months, or even years.
What you might not know is that Long COVID is common. In 2022, about one in 13 people in the US, or 7.5% of the population, had Long COVID, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
People with Long COVID need ongoing care and treatment, and depending on the symptoms, physical therapists and physical therapist assistants can offer some help.
“Early recognition and effective management of the potentially disabling effects of long COVID can lead to improved outcomes and quality of life,” according to the American Physical Therapy Association. “Physical therapists can help individuals with safe rehabilitation during long COVID recovery and empower them to self-manage lingering chronic symptoms.”
Long COVID is complicated because the virus can affect so many parts of the body, including the heart, lungs, brain, and gastrointestinal system. Long COVID symptoms can include fatigue, heart palpitations, brain fog, shortness of breath, joint and muscle pain, dizziness, changes in smell or taste, and depression and anxiety, to name a few.
People over 40, those with multiple or more severe COVID infections (although it can happen even with mild infections), and people who aren't vaccinated are at higher risk of Long COVID, according to the CDC.
While not everyone is a candidate for physical therapy, physical therapists are often an essential part of the care team for people who develop Long COVID.
So where does physical therapy come in? Research is ongoing to determine what treatment plans offer the most benefit to Long COVID patients.
One case study found that a 37-year-old woman with Long COVID who had physical therapy sessions twice a week for 8 weeks had an improvement in muscle strength, physical function, and exercise capacity.
Physical therapy sessions may be able to improve shortness of breath; decrease anxiety, stress, and depression; and increase lung capacity, according to one 2022 study in the journal Frontiers.
In short, physical therapy and physical therapy assistants can often help many patients with Long COVID. Talk to your doctor about what the right course of treatment might be for you.