How physiotherapy can help people recover from COVID-19

Cardiorespiratory therapy a vital piece of recovery for patients with coronavirus, say U of A physiotherapists

Amanda Anderson - 21 May 2020

A type of physiotherapy that helps people improve their breathing and oxygen uptake can be crucial for those who need critical care, say physiotherapists working on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Cardiorespiratory physiotherapy encompasses many things—from teaching patients different types of breathing exercises, mobilization exercises and manual techniques to providing postural advice and correction by positioning the body for optimal lung function and oxygen management,” said William Tung, teaching assistant in the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine. “It can be very important for those recovering from disease of the lungs.”

Tung has been helping teach students practical skills in the Department of Physical Therapy’s cardiorespiratory courses for over 10 years now. He is also the physiotherapy professional practice lead at the Royal Alexandra Hospital and has seen first-hand how physiotherapy intervention can assist those afflicted with the novel coronavirus.

“Different patients may need different exercises, depending on what stage they are at in their recovery. Some patients may not require any exercises at all. But, in general, everyone can benefit from exercises to help with mobility, cardiac and pulmonary function, flexibility, strength, endurance, mental health, independence, self-care management and more,” said Tung. “This is why we work as an interdisciplinary team—so we can establish the best course of treatment for our patients.”

Stephanie Oviatt, a physiotherapist and clinical practice lead at South Health Campus in Calgary agreed that physiotherapy plays a pivotal role, especially during recovery from acute respiratory distress syndrome, which is common in severe cases of COVID-19. 

“While the patients are very ill, requiring prone positioning to improve oxygenation, physiotherapy can provide guidance to nursing staff to ensure patients are positioned correctly in order to decrease the chance of pressure injuries and nerve impingements, both of which could have a significant impact on the patients’ recovery,” said Oviatt, who graduated from the U of A’s Master of Science in Physical Therapy (MSc PT) program in 2011.

For those who are in critical care, physiotherapists can provide important interventions to assist with weaning off of ventilators and beginning early rehabilitation to lessen the deconditioning and weakness that happens during a severe illness.

But even patients who are well enough to go home will still require some rehabilitation services.

“Once the patient has left the intensive care unit (ICU), the rehabilitation team continues to help progress their exercise tolerance, monitor their reactions to exercises and provide individualized strengthening exercises to help gain back the strength lost during their ICU stay,” said Dana Downing, physiotherapist at the Royal Alexandra Hospital and a U of A 2008 MSc PT grad. “We also continue to educate patients on when and how to exercise and what signs and symptoms to watch out for during exertion that might slow their progress.”

Oviatt agreed, noting that physiotherapy, like many other forms of rehabilitation, will play a big part in maintaining a healthy lifestyle post-COVID. 

“Physiotherapists are going to be imperative to assist with return to baseline function, return to activity and work and overall improving the quality of life of those who have recovered.”