COVID-19 Recovery: A Balancing Act


By Liz Chausee, PT, DPT and Matthew O’Connor, PT, DPT
9/10/2020

Picture this: You’re sitting in your favorite armchair in the living room, watching reruns of your favorite show on Netflix, and you realize you have to go to the bathroom. You sit up to get out of your chair only to realize that the fifteen feet to the bathroom that was once your carpeted living room floor is now a four-inch wide balance beam. It’s not entirely clear how far down the ground is, but it doesn’t matter that much because you can’t see it, meaning that it’s far enough to be dangerous. You wonder how Special Agent Ethan Hunt from all the Mission: Impossible movies does stuff like this without hesitation. He scaled a building in Dubai with magnetic gloves, so you should be able to get across this beam, right? Since when did such a simple task feel so scary? Since when did such a simple task have such terrible consequences?

Let’s flash back to reality. You’re not Ethan Hunt, and your living room floor is still the stable, carpeted surface it always has been. But that sense of fear and anxiety is the reality for people with poor balance and coordination. A fall, even in a familiar place like your own home, can result in a hip or knee fracture, a vertebral fracture, or a head injury leading to all kinds of complications. Each of these consequences has a myriad of subsequent medical treatments, making the distance from your body to the ground a pretty scary five feet.

After a long stay in an acute setting of a hospital, your muscles, joints, and nerves don’t have the same sense of control and balance that they had before. People who are hospitalized for COVID-19 spend days — sometimes even weeks — in bed to give their bodies the rest necessary to recover. Without the consistent workload of walking and going about their normal lives, their balance and coordination suffers gravely. Combined with the cognitive and memory deficits that often occur with COVID-19, small, everyday occurrences can cause falls. Maybe you bump into a dresser while talking to your partner because your attention is too divided.

It’s helpful to think of balance as a combination of two major concepts: strength and coordination. Whether you recovered from COVID-19 in the hospital, or spent quarantine safely at home, if you weren’t active enough it’s very likely both your strength and coordination suffered. Without the strength of your legs and core, it’s difficult for your body to stay balanced on your own two feet! If your trunk isn’t strong enough, you’ll find yourself stooped over while you’re walking.

Within those two major concepts, it’s helpful to know that your balance relies on three individual systems within your body to stay upright: your inner ears, your vision, and your joint position sense. These systems need training to stay vigilant and effective, just like any other skill or task you regularly do. If you didn’t tie your shoes at all for a few weeks, you’d likely have to think extra hard about exactly how to do it when you had to. If you have to think too hard about where your body is in space, you might be halfway to the ground already.

COVID-19 has some other complications regarding balance. As our understanding of the virus has grown, we’ve learned that the virus itself attacks the inside of smaller blood vessels. This increases the risk of clotting, which in turn increases the risk of a stroke. People who have suffered a stroke are at a significantly higher risk of falls, which may lead them to more hospitalizations.

Working together with a physical therapist, you can utilize specific exercises to target and address the vulnerabilities in your own balance in an effort to prevent falls in the future. With increased strength and improved coordination, you can feel more secure on your own two feet. If anything we just discussed relates to you or someone you know that has survived COVID-19, you may benefit from a balance evaluation by a licensed physical therapist at Emerson Hospital’s Clough Family Center for Rehabilitation and Sports Therapies.

To learn more about our COVID-19 Recovery Program, visit EmersonHospital.org/covidrecovery or call us at 978-287-8200.

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