Post-COVID Recovery is Necessary – and Becoming Widely Available
This article about post-COVID recovery was written by Michael Kamme, PT, Cert MDT – Senior Physical Therapist
Since COVID-19 first appeared in the United States, medical professionals have scrambled to find ways to accurately – and adequately – treat patients. The first priority is to ensure that patients survive their diagnosis. But what happens when patients clear their quarantine periods or get released from the hospitals?
For many, though they’d like to get back to the way things were before their diagnosis, this just isn’t possible. Since COVID-19 is still a relatively new medical condition, there is still a great deal to learn about it. This means also learning about the lasting effects.
Post-COVID-19 care isn’t the same as recovering from other medical diagnoses, and the medical community isn’t treating it as such.
Fortunately for patients, these doctors, nurses, specialists teamed up with others in the medical field to continue providing care when – and where – it is needed most. This means including those responsible for long-term care like rehabilitation specialists and physical therapists.
Northwell Health’s STARS Rehabilitation Network created one such program. This program focuses on COVID rehabilitation, and meeting the needs of recovering patients. This is true no matter how severe their case of the virus was.
How Does This Post-COVID Recovery Program Help Patients?
Implemented for the first time in May, the Northwell STARS program has since seen 60 total patients. Based on guidelines and resources provided by the APTA (American Physical Therapy Association), treatment for participants comes from knowledgeable physical therapy professionals during each visit.
This is unlike traditional physical therapy, which focuses on overall body strength and endurance. COVID rehabilitation also requires a focus on breathing – and rebuilding lung function.
Yes, patients lose strength overall when they need to stay in bed, or limit their activity for two weeks or longer. However, the Coronavirus impacts the lungs immensely. You need to address this in post-diagnosis recovery. Strengthening the lungs via cardiopulmonary testing and focus in turn strengthens the rest of the body, too. Whole-body health and recovery are the ultimate goals of the post-COVID recovery program.
Benefits of Seeking Out This Program (Or One Like It) For COVID Recovery
It’s understandable that there is a social stigma associated with getting diagnosed with COVID-19, but you shouldn’t let that discourage you from seeking treatment.
The recovery period takes time. Unlike with a traditional flu that has a roughly 2-3 week recovery period for severe cases, it may take months for COVID patients to get back to “normal.”
During this time, the more you do to support your health and recovery, the better. Though you may not always consider physical therapy as a viable option for recovery from an illness like this, there are many benefits to going this route.
Physical therapy helps with post-COVID recovery in many of the same ways that it helps those recovering from injuries and chronic illnesses.
- Circulation increases throughout the body with physical therapy
- Increasing stamina and endurance helps reduce overall fatigue as time passes
- Physical therapy helps to train muscles efficiently
- Successful physical therapy sessions raise patient spirit and mood
Along with these benefits, there are many cardiopulmonary benefits to physical therapy for post-COVID recovery.
- Breathing exercises strengthen muscles in the chest and stomach, as well as improve lung function
- Focusing on overall breathing and the diaphragm helps the body’s nervous system
- A physical therapy program for COVID rehabilitation allows patients to focus on energy conservation and management
- Monitoring endurance levels, heart rate and oxygen levels keeps patients educated about their condition
Who Needs Post-COVID Rehabilitation?
This type of program is useful for anyone that is recovering from COVID-19. However it is most useful for those that had moderate to severe cases. It’s also ideal for those hospitalized for any period of time.
Since this program’s overall focus is on assisting patients as they return to their prior level of function, it is important to consider individual needs when considering participation.
Luckily for many patients, they won’t need to make the decision about whether or not the program is right for them on their own. As with other physical therapy programs, physicians often recommend the post-COVID recovery option. This means that if your doctors believe you would benefit from these sessions, they’ll refer you to a physical therapist.
But for those that don’t have a physician’s referral, the program is still available. With direct access, no referral is needed to begin post-COVID recovery programs in many networks. To put it simply, anyone recovering from COVID-19 that feels as though their abilities are diminished though they are no longer sick may benefit from this program.
This is especially true for those that have underlying conditions like cardiovascular or pulmonary illnesses. The more fit you are, the better your immune system responds to illnesses and “attacks” by viruses and diseases. Overall, improving your health can only help in the future.
When is Post-COVID Rehabilitation Recommended?
The short answer is that a program of this nature is beneficial as soon as you’re no longer contagious and receive a negative COVID-19 test result. But the actual answer is much more complicated.
Most physical therapists and doctors are happy to welcome you into their programs as soon as you’ve begun to recover. This means there is no longer risk of transmitting the virus to others you come into contact with. But just because you’re no longer a health risk, it doesn’t mean that you’re strong enough.
To begin the process of COVID recovery with a physical therapist, baseline tests are done. These assess health aspects like
- Overall quality of life
- Endurance (a 6-minute walk test is performed before, during and after sessions)
- Cardiovascular health
Armed with this knowledge, physical therapy professionals will determine if you’re capable of beginning a series of activities that will push your body. Sometimes, patients can begin immediately.
Other times, they’ll recommend that you simply return home. Work on building strength and endurance by slowly increasing your activity level there, and then go back for a later assessment.
Remember: progress is progress, no matter how small.
Why Physical Therapy is a Critical Part of COVID Recovery
Instead of deciding to “wait and see” what happens in the weeks and months following a COVID-19 diagnosis, choosing physical therapy gives you almost immediate feedback.
This doesn’t mean that after one or two sessions, you’ll be back to normal. Instead, it means that after consulting with your physical therapist, you’ll have a plan. The longer you wait to seek out treatment, or to improve strength and endurance, the more time your body has to regress.
Being sick is not fun. Being sick for weeks is even less fun. But what happens when it’s months down the line, and you’re still feeling weak and fatigued?
Don’t let it get to this point.
Sure, it’s possible to increase range of motion, endurance, stamina and strength over time on your own, but why not let the professionals help? With guided, focused treatment and care, you won’t be trying to figure out where to begin – you’ll know.
Early intervention is best, but always wait until you feel comfortable and healthy enough to begin any sort of rehabilitation. The baseline tests give you – and your physical therapists – information, but they don’t always tell the full story. You and you alone know what your body experiences on a daily basis, so while pushing yourself is great, pushing yourself too far is not.
Safe and effective, supervised physical therapy sessions boost the body and the mind. Make the most of them whenever possible. As time passes and you’re able to do more, you’ll begin feeling better about yourself and your options, even if it takes some time to achieve your goals.
The COVID Recovery Effort Was Lead by Northwell Health, But It Won’t End There
As medical professionals scrambled to find the best ways to ensure their patients weren’t put on waiting lists and were receiving the care they deserve, Northwell Health took action.
Anticipating patient fallout and a backlog of appointments, these professionals utilized all available information from the APTA, research and first-hand experience from a variety of physicians and specialists. They met in person and via webinars, sent countless emails and spoke over the phone – and they all had one goal.
Find a way to give patients the treatment they needed immediately – not months in the future.
Since cardiopulmonary rehabilitation isn’t always conveniently located, or widely available, the Northwell Health team and their STARS Rehabilitation Network worked hard to add a pulmonary component to their physical therapy offerings. Working diligently to educate practitioners, therapists and therapy assistants – and to keep this knowledge current – Northwell Health’s program was among the first to be wholly collaborative.
It wasn’t only about being first, it was about being thorough. Not only did reaching out and facilitating connections between physicians from multiple specialty areas and physical therapists become a cornerstone of their CARES program, it became a standard.
Coordinating care in this manner ensures that patients receive treatment as needed, and there is no confusion. The design of this program promoted short term use. However, as successful results are logged, long-term use is likely. This collaboration does more than provide excellent care, too. It also increases outreach, understanding and marketing. The more involved and engaged people are, the better.
Options for COVID Rehabilitation Extend Beyond the Clinic
Most patients benefit immensely from hands-on physical therapy when they are recovering from COVID-19, but there are some occasions where Telehealth is useful.
For educational purposes, choosing Telehealth helps. Your physical therapist is able to provide information, assist you with breathing exercises, help with overall awareness, and talk you through energy conservation virtually. However, if safety becomes an issue, physical therapists don’t recommend Telehealth.
Beyond your in-person sessions, all physical therapists will tell you that making slow, steady progress is necessary to full recovery. Treatment programs like this one help guard against future risk factors, and the healthier you are, the better.
Start small when you’re not in sessions. Do more around your home. Go for walks. Get fresh air. Gradually increase your activity levels, and report the results back to your doctors and physical therapists. The more you do now, the less you’ll need to do later.
COVID Recovery Requires Continued Education and Participation
In the limited use of this type of program, results show that of the patients completing their treatments, no one got worse. Patients made significant improvements in terms of strength and endurance, which also means that overall health improved, too.
Carefully screening patients before they begin their programs ensures that they are where they need to be. This means that if you need care, you’ll know you’re getting it from the right place.
If you or someone you know is recovering from COVID-19, reach out to a physical therapist near you. Some networks even offer a downloadable app for this. Physical therapists train in assessing activity levels, including pulmonary function. They are equipped to help you recover and restore your strength and activity levels over time.
Don’t be afraid to seek out this type of care – that’s exactly why it’s available in the first place.
The more the medical community is able to learn about COVID recovery, the better. The only way to gather this information is by participation in programs like this across the country.
Michael is a licensed physical therapist. He received his masters in physical therapy from Utica College in 2006. Michael specializes in spine rehabilitation, scoliosis and general orthopaedics. He has earned his Mechanical Diagnosis and Therapy (Cert. MDT) certification in the McKenzie Method for the diagnosis and treatment of spinal dysfunctions. Michael is also certified in Schroth based 3 Dimensional Scoliosis Specific Exercises C2 Certification by BSPTS. This is useful for the evaluation and treatment of adolescent scoliosis. It specializes in curve-specific exercises for the possible halting of curve progression in collaboration with physician, orthotist, patient and family.