Polio was once a looming threat in America, with outbreaks in the early 1950’s causing over 15,000 cases of paralysis each year prior to the introduction of the polio vaccine. The wide-scale vaccination process brought cases down to less than 100 cases in the 1960’s. In the 1970’s there were less than 10 cases, with the last reported case in the United States being in 1979. The most devastating symptom of polio is profound muscle weakness, with up to 10% succumbing to it, due to respiratory muscle involvement. Up to 40% of those who had recovered from polio had an unpleasant surprise 15-40 years after their original onset when they experienced the sudden return of muscle weakness, muscle and mental fatigue and joint pain, now called “Post-polio syndrome.” Thankfully this state is not contagious, nor is it considered life threatening, but it certainly can lead to profound disability. I remember my first post-polio syndrome patients as a young physical therapist in the 1980’s. While there is no true cure for the progression of symptoms, studies showed that non-fatiguing exercise could improve muscle strength and reduce tiredness; the key for us as therapists was to find a delicate balance of not too much exercise, but not too little.
Now here we are in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic, with far more cases than we saw with polio. Over 30 million people have been infected in the USA as of March 2021. Early studies report that 20-27% of those who have technically recovered from even mild cases of COVID-19 continue to show symptoms over 2 months later.
This group has been dubbed “COVID-19 long haulers,” with their presentation being called “long COVID syndrome,” “post-acute sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 infection,” or “Post-COVID-19 syndrome.” Their symptoms include various combinations of fatigue, weakness, low endurance, brain fog, headache, numbness and tingling, distorted sense of smell, altered taste, dizziness, blurred vision, chest pain, cough, shortness of breath, anxiety, variation of heart rate and blood pressure, abdominal pain, nausea, low back and other joint pain. It has become obvious that COVID-19 is a multi-organ disease with nervous system involvement that has a very broad reach. For some these symptoms are a bother; for others they are debilitating.
As the number of “long haulers” begins to increase, health care professionals are at a crucial point to find valid ways to help. Ai Chi is a credible intervention for many of the symptoms that COVID-19 long-haulers experience, as it provides core muscle strengthening, increases joint mobility, improves focus, brings relaxation and reduces stress, enhances breathing, decreases heart rate and blood pressure and relieves back and joint pain. Importantly however, we need evidence-based research showing its effectiveness in Post-COVID-19 syndrome. A good place for practitioners to start is with case studies employing good research practices, including informed consent, controlled parameters and valid test measures. And those who have the resources can undertake larger scale studies with control groups based on the initial findings suggested by case studies. As a reviewer for the APTA’s Journal of Aquatic Physical Therapy, I see this as an important research area today that can have a big impact on the lives of many. I am looking forward to seeing your research!
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