Recovering Your Strength Following a COVID-19 Infection


By Joshua Leigh, PT, DPT, OCS, CSCS, and Nick Schumacher, PT, DPT, OCS, CSCS
9/4/2020

You know that feeling when you walk up a flight of stairs and feel like you just ran a marathon? Or when you first return to the gym after two weeks off, and it’s a struggle to lift the weights you were lifting with ease only two weeks prior? Imagine this feeling multiplied by 100!
 
This only partially illustrates the level of muscular wasting experienced by those patients who spent days in the intensive care unit (ICU) battling COVID-19. Muscle mass that took years to develop can be lost in what feels like the blink of an eye. A loss of strength can be attributed to decreased muscle mass, increased inflammation, or even a faulty nervous system. Whether an individual has to be on a ventilator in the ICU or recovering in bed at home, muscular wasting is one of the unavoidable consequences of COVID-19.
 
When weakness sets in, the body has to work even harder to accomplish tasks that once seemed easy, like rolling in bed, getting out of a chair, or getting dressed. With an increase in effort, the body needs more oxygen, which can often be a big problem. Imagine trying to drive a car without any gas in the tank. Decreased blood oxygen levels, a condition known as hypoxia, can leave the muscles starved and can be dangerous when left undetected for too long.
 
COVID-19-related nervous system dysfunction can also contribute to weakness. Even if your “gas tank” reserves are full, we need a strong connection between our brain and our muscles. Think of it like a light in your house: the switch is your brain, the wires are your nerves, and the light is your muscle. If we don’t flip that switch frequently, your brain can “forget” how to turn that light on at all. The one redeeming part of that analogy is that you can retrain your brain, strengthen the connection to that muscle, and feel much stronger in your everyday life!
 
Muscular weakness can affect anyone, but recovery can be especially hard for patients who have to be hospitalized for their symptoms. Intensive-care-unit-acquired weakness and post-intensive-care syndrome are conditions where weakness is a side effect of the rest required while being cared for in a hospital. Persistent muscular weakness can contribute to physical, mental, and cognitive difficulty. These lasting challenges often have a profound impact on people who have been hospitalized, long after they’ve left the hospital to return home.
 
As doctoral-trained physical therapists, it is our mission to help our community to become stronger and return to doing what they love. Our team is particularly equipped to help individuals overcome the challenges faced post-COVID-19 or anyone who is experiencing difficulty due to muscular weakness. Our primary goal is to get them back to the life they lived before the infection with a progressive, personalized training plan. We will set goals together, constantly communicate, and ensure that they feel in control of their own recovery. Whether it is you, a family member, or friend who needs us, please spread the word!
 
Learn more about Emerson Hospital’s COVID-19 Recovery Program, part of our Clough Family Center for Rehabilitative and Sports Therapies, by visiting emersonhospital.org/covidrecovery or calling 978-287-8200.