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11th May 2023

Long COVID: Can improved sleep cure breathlessness?

A joint study led by The University of Manchester and Leicester has linked disturbed sleep to breathlessness in long COVID patients and proposes possible treatment solutions.
Long COVID: Can improved sleep cure breathlessness?
Photo: Karolina Grabowska @ Pexels

The pandemic has opened up numerous new areas of scientific research, from the rapid development of novel vaccines to statistical modelling of case numbers. One of these areas which is delving deeper into the science of COVID-19 is the study of ‘long COVID’ and its symptoms.

What is long COVID?

COVID-19 patients typically make a full recovery within 12 weeks. However, for some the symptoms last much longer.

It is currently unclear what causes the long-term effects associated with ‘long COVID’, despite an estimated two million individuals in the UK living with the condition. Major symptoms include fatigue, shortness of breath, loss of smell, and muscle aches.

Revealing the causes

A pioneering study of patients in 38 institutions across the UK has linked two of these major symptoms; fatigue and breathlessness. Through this research, scientists have identified potential mechanisms to address the life-altering symptoms associated with long COVID.

The study involved comparing symptoms of participants admitted to hospital with COVID-19, to matched patients admitted for other reasons. The researchers found that 62% of participants admitted to hospital with COVID-19 had sleep disruption, which lasted for around 12 months. Statistically, the COVID-19 patients slept for an hour longer, but they had less regular sleep patterns.

Statistical analysis of all of the symptoms of participants shows that those with sleep disruptions were more likely to develop anxiety and muscle weakness, two common causes of breathlessness. This suggests a possible explanation for the relationship between sleep disruption and breathlessness.

Dr John Blaikely, a clinical scientist from the University of Manchester said:

“This study has discovered that sleep disturbance could be an important driver of post-COVID-19 breathlessness – or dyspnoea – because of its associations with reduced muscle function and anxiety”

On the way to a treatment

The importance of the connection found between these symptoms is that it provides the healthcare industry with possible ways in which to combat the symptom of breathlessness. If treatments and medical intervention can work to target sleep disruption symptoms, by reducing anxiety and improving muscle strength, then this could help treat the breathlessness in patients.

More research is needed to evaluate these potential treatments, but this study introduces an exciting development in the research of long COVID and has the potential to help alleviate the symptoms of some of the two million sufferers in the UK.

Commenting on the potential applications of this research Dr John Blaikely said:

“Interventions targeting poor sleep quality might be used to manage symptoms and convalescence following COVID-19 hospitalisation, potentially improving patient outcomes.”

Outside of this direct application, this study also represents a large-scale research project, with contributions from multiple universities and research centres across the country, into a little-understood area of COVID-19. For the sake of the many sufferers of this life-disrupting condition, hopefully, this is a continuing research trend.

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