The results of a small study this week may offer some hope to people struggling with prolonged symptoms following a case of covid-19. The study found that long covid patients taking part in a rehabilitation program in Ireland, conducted online, experienced noticeable improvements in how their fatigue affected their well-being and daily functioning.
There is much that we’re still unsure about when it comes to long covid, from its likely causes to how often it happens (estimates range from the single digits to over 25% of covid-19 cases). And we know even less about the best ways to help sufferers recover from it.
There are dedicated long covid clinics in the U.S. and elsewhere, where patients might be given treatments like physical therapy, counseling, and medications to manage other conditions that could have arisen as a result, such as hypertension or diabetes. But information is sparse on how effective any of these interventions are at improving people’s symptoms or their overall quality of life. The new research, presented this week at the European Congress of Clinical Microbiology & Infectious Diseases, provides some preliminary data to that end.
The pilot study included 53 people who reported covid-related fatigue severe enough to impact their daily life. About two-thirds had been dealing with their symptoms at least 12 weeks to a year after their initial covid diagnosis, while a third had been experiencing them for over a year. Nearly three-fourths also reported breathing difficulties, and about half were experiencing cognitive dysfunction, often known as brain fog.
The rehab program they took part in was developed by occupational therapists at St James’s Hospital and Trinity College in Ireland and was adapted from interventions they’ve previously used to help patients with multiple sclerosis and other chronic conditions. It involved three 90-minute sessions with an occupational therapist over a four-week period, delivered online at the time due to pandemic precautions. These sessions focused on stress management, sleep hygiene, and training people to recognize the daily limits of their physical and mental energy before their symptoms worsen.
Before and after the program, patients were asked via survey about their levels of fatigue, well-being, and quality of life. By the end of the program, patients generally reported improvements in how they felt and in how their symptoms affected their lives.
“Initial results from our pilot program are highly promising,” senior study author Louise Norris, an occupational therapist at St James’s Hospital in a statement from the European Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases. “They show equipping patients with a range of practical techniques can result in meaningful improvements in fatigue and quality of life. Patients also have fewer concerns about their wellbeing.”
These results do come from a small sample size and have yet to be peer-reviewed, so they should be taken with added caution. The intervention also isn’t necessarily addressing the root cause of the symptoms, which may include persistent infection or an autoimmune dysfunction caused by the original infection. But it may help restore people’s ability to lead a functional life while dealing with their illness, the researchers note. And with the promising results from their pilot study now in hand, they’ve already begun to collect additional data from more patients—data that might someday show that these kinds of programs can be widely used to help patients find some semblance of normalcy again.
“There is an urgent need to find new and better ways of managing post-covid fatigue and its wide-ranging, and in some cases, devastating, effects on people’s lives,” said Norris.
Read more: The Challenges of Unravelling Long Covid