The vast majority of people who develop COVID-19 fully recover after 2-6 weeks. But a small minority of patients will experience persistent COVID symptoms for 3 months or longer. Known as “long COVID” or “long-haul COVID,” this condition affects patients of all ages. COVID long term effects occur more often when patients have pre-existing conditions that put them more at risk and for those whose symptoms were more severe.
People suffering from the long-term effects of COVID might experience chest pain, trouble breathing, headaches, nausea, anxiety, depression, and fatigue. Some of the symptoms might lead them to be hospitalized again, while others are so subtle it’s hard to know if it is a lingering effect of COVID at all. Long-haul COVID can be keep patients from returning to normal life.
A multidisciplinary recovery program for patients with long-term effects of COVID can help restore their independence and autonomy to the greatest extent. A COVID-19 recovery program may include medical treatment, physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, and counseling. Today, we would like to focus on how long haul COVID patients can benefit from occupational therapy.
Benefits of Occupational Therapy
The purpose of occupational therapy is to help patients participate in the activities they need to do and want to do after an illness, injury, or disability. Occupational therapists aspire to help their patients live independently and function fully as productive members of society. At the same time, occupational therapy instills hope, confidence, and motivation in patients. Occupational therapy is grounded in the theory that each of us derives a sense of self-esteem and pleasure from doing.
Many people who have COVID long term effects may never have expected it at all. They expected their symptoms to subside after a few weeks, never dreaming that it would be so difficult to return to normalcy. Yet debilitating fatigue, loss of energy, and weakness may prevent many long-haul COVID patients from being able to participate in the normal activities of daily life. Without help, patients often ignore the symptoms of fatigue from their body and further deplete their energy by overexerting themselves. For these patients, this may also lead to more pain and symptoms of illness.
Fortunately, occupational therapy can help patients in COVID-19 recovery move forward safely in the journey to regain full functionality. The fatigue and weakness that accompanies COVID requires people to use their energy wisely and not stretch themselves beyond their limits. Occupational therapists in a COVID-19 recovery program can help patients conserve energy by teaching them a variety of evidence-based skills and strategies from the OT’s toolbox. They help patients gradually do more without hurting themselves.
Steps to Recovery
The first step is often to help patients understand the reality of their situation and the fact that they are not in a condition to function at a normal level yet. People in COVID-19 recovery must understand that recovery is a process. Patience and persistence are important to the success of any plan to achieve optimal health.
First, activities the person may have been able to do previously with little to no thought may now require prioritizing and planning. Occupational therapists can help patients with long-haul COVID plan the optimal number of activities for the day and devise ways to carry them out without exhausting their energy reserves. This might include alternating heavier and lighter tasks or eliminating unnecessary tasks altogether.
Long-haul COVID patients also need to pace themselves while participating in normal activities. They may need to listen to their bodies, do things at a slow and steady pace, stop an activity before they get exhausted, and take breaks at least every hour or two to replenish their energy. Occupational therapists teach patients to become aware of their needs and a variety of strategies for pacing their tasks.
Adapting to fatigue and low energy levels can also mean changing the way you physically do things. In occupational therapy this is called positioning. Long-haul COVID patients who are struggling with energy may want to find ways to sit for some tasks (e.g. doing the laundry while sitting in a chair) and avoid standing for long period of time when possible. They may choose to practice ways to support themselves, like using a reacher instead of their arms when trying to reach for something on a high shelf.
Helping patients relax and rest between all these activities is another important aspect of occupational therapy. OTs teach patients breathing and relaxation techniques that will help them replenish their energy and lower stress levels. Occupational therapists can also teach good sleep habits, including setting regular times to go to bed and wake up or taking naps at optimal times.
Returning to work is often an important goal for patients with long-haul COVID. Occupational therapists may work with patients to gradually build their capacity to work or help them find work that best suits their current needs and capabilities. OTs may also work with employers to help the patients transition back to work.
Benefits of Occupational Therapy on Mental Health
For a recovery program to achieve the best results, occupational therapists will also focus on the patient’s mental health and mindset. Patients need to build a positive mindset that supports their goals. Accepting themselves, feeling compassion for their struggles, and feeling hopeful about their recovery process is critical to a successful journey.
To address this growing need, Rehab Select is among the first skilled nursing facilities in Alabama to open recovery units in all locations dedicated to post-COVID recovery. A team of specialists will evaluate patients with long-haul COVID and create individualized treatment programs that address their specific situation and needs. Rehab Select is dedicated to helping COVID patients achieve optimal health and participation in the meaningful activities of life. Learn more about Rehab Select’s COVID-19 recovery program by scheduling a tour.