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Experts say occupational therapy sessions can help ease some long COVID symptoms. FG Trade/Getty Images

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  • It’s estimated that as many as 30 percent of people who have had COVID-19 will experience long-term health problems.
  • In a new study, researchers say occupational therapy can improve well-being and quality of life for people with long COVID.
  • Experts say rehabilitation programs can help ease fatigue and improve the mood of people with this condition.

Researchers estimate up to 30 percent of the people who contract COVID-19 experience some long-term health problems after they initially recover from the disease.

Fatigue is reported to be the most common symptom.

Long term COVID is still new, there hasn’t been a lot of research, and the cases vary greatly from person to person.

A new study finds that occupational therapy can improve quality of life and overall well-being among people with long-haul COVID who are living with chronic fatigue.

The findings were presented during a session at the European Congress of Clinical Microbiology & Infectious Diseases.

The research hasn’t been peer-reviewed or published yet.

In their study, researchers from St. James Hospital in Dublin and Trinity College Dublin in Ireland found that an occupational therapy fatigue management program delivered positive improvements to individuals with post-COVID symptoms who said their tiredness was affecting their work, leisure activities, and self-care.

“One of the key roles and skills of occupational therapy is to help people get back to their everyday activities,” said Louise Norris, a study leader and senior occupational therapist at St James’s Hospital. “We’ve previously helped those with other conditions, such as multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis, learn techniques to manage their fatigue and felt we could use that experience to address the needs of those with long-term fatigue post-COVID.”

The intervention, delivered as three 1.5-hour group therapy sessions over a 4-week period, focused on self-management techniques to address fatigue, brain fog, sleep hygiene, energy conservation, and pacing of activities by taking breaks before reaching the point of exhaustion.

“Energy conservation techniques include addressing the home and community environment to decrease activity demands,” Danyelle Durocher, an occupational therapist and owner of Durocher Therapy Services in Arkansas, told Healthline. “Energy conservation can also include addressing time management when planning outings or routines.”

The study found that the occupational therapy intervention was associated with positive changes in fatigue impact and well-being among participants.

“Equipping patients with a range of practical techniques can result in meaningful improvements in fatigue and quality of life,” Norris said in a press statement. “Patients also have fewer concerns about their wellbeing.”

Other techniques to address chronic fatigue include pursed-lip breathing, which Durocher said can increase overall oxygenation and decrease the physical demands of activities.

Adaptive equipment, like long-handled dressing equipment and a reacher to assist with obtaining items without excessive reaching or bending, also can be part of an occupational therapy program for chronic fatigue, she added.

“To address fatigue and shortness of breath with activities, physical and occupational therapists use graded exposure of endurance exercises in a supervised and safe environment,” Anne Bierman, who designed the COVID-19 Recovery and Rehabilitation Program for Athletico Physical Therapy, told Healthline. “Pulse oximeters are also frequently used to keep patients in a safe oxygen saturation zone. This will increase the patient’s tolerance to those activities and help them return to their level of function pre-COVID.”

“Patients who are experiencing long COVID would benefit from a multi-disciplinary approach including, but not limited to, physical therapy, recreational therapy, and counseling to address holistic concerns,” added Durocher. “Long COVID has an impact on psychosocial factors as much if not more so than physical or medical concerns.”

Maya McNulty, a long-haul COVID patient and advocate for improved treatment, told Healthline that a combination of occupational, physical, and vestibular therapy (which focuses on dizziness, vertigo, balance, posture, and vision) has been effective in addressing many of her symptoms, which have included both cognitive and physical impairments.

“These three therapies together truly help with the chronic fatigue and lend hope with decreasing the toll COVID has left,” she said.

Researchers said the findings suggest that occupational therapy be incorporated into post-COVID recovery programs.

“There is an urgent need to find new and better ways of managing post-COVID fatigue and its wide-ranging, and in some cases, devastating, effects on people’s lives,” Norris said.

“Most specialized centers that treat long COVID already have these programs in place,” Dr. Surendra Barshikar, a rehab specialist and medical director of UT Southwestern’s COVID Recover program in Texas. “We know that such interventions work. This study validates our findings and prompts us to conduct systematic research and disseminate the findings, which will help healthcare providers and patients who do not have access to specialized long COVID programs.”

Pacing will be different for each person. There may be both advantages and disadvantages to exercise in COVID, so an individual approach is needed.