Persistent Shortness of Breath As a consequence of Treatable Nerve Harm

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COVID-19 shortness of breath young woman
Some COVID-19 lengthy haulers have persistent shortness of breath however regular lung imaging. (Picture supply: iStock)

Persistent shortness of breath in COVID-19 lengthy haulers could also be resulting from a treatable nerve harm. This can be a reminder that shortness of breath is just not at all times pulmonary. 

Sandy’s story

Sandy is a 42-year-old beforehand wholesome lady who offered with a four-month historical past of an incapacity to have conversations or do Zoom conferences with out feeling out of breath.

Her chest X-ray (CXR) and chest computerized tomography (CT) scan had been regular. Nonetheless, she had an uncommon abnormality on her spirometry lung respiratory take a look at with flattening of the inspiratory curve.

She had medical signs of delicate COVID-19 illness in March 2020. Nonetheless, she was not examined resulting from lack of entry.

An ear, nostril, and throat (ENT) examination of her larynx (voice field) in July 2020 confirmed irregular closing of her vocal cords throughout quiet respiratory. This can be a time when they need to have been open. This was recognized as a paradoxical vocal fold motion dysfunction.

Therapy was instituted and included following a strict low-acid eating regimen and doing speech remedy by way of telemedicine (because of the ongoing pandemic). Six weeks later, Sandy was in a position to keep on full conversations and run Zoom conferences with none shortness of breath. And, her examination was regular.

COVID-19 “lengthy haulers” and shortness of breath

Persistent shortness of breath (SOB) lengthy after restoration from presumed or documented COVID-19 an infection is a vexing and troublesome symptom for untold numbers of individuals.[1] 

SOB is a outstanding symptom in individuals with what has come to be often called the COVID-19 “lengthy hauler” syndrome.[2] In the UK, it’s referred to easily as COVID “lengthy”. What the “lengthy” refers to is lengthy after individuals ostensibly “recuperate” from COVID-19 there might exist a persistence of a wide range of signs that appear to defy additional prognosis and therapy.

Two forms of COVID-19 lengthy haulers

Based on Dr. Anthony Komaroff, MD, Editor in Chief of the Harvard Well being Letter, there are two primary forms of COVID-19 lengthy haulers.[3]

  • Those that expertise some everlasting injury to their lungs, coronary heart, kidneys, or mind that will have an effect on their skill to operate.
  • Those that proceed to expertise debilitating signs regardless of no detectable injury to those organs.

Fauci weighs in on the reason for COVID-19 lengthy haulers’ signs

There are a number of theories as to why there are persistent signs. Some of the in style theories comes from Dr. Anthony Fauci MD, Director of the Nationwide Institute of Allergy and Infectious Ailments on the Nationwide Institutes of Well being.

Dr. Fauci feels that the COVID-19 sufferers within the “no detectable organ injury” group have a post-viral syndrome referred to as myalgic encephalomyelitis. This was beforehand often called continual fatigue syndrome.[3] 

As soon as this prognosis is made, and since COVID-19 is a brand new illness, little or no hope is obtainable. We imagine that now we have recognized a treatable diagnostic chance that does in truth provide hope to those sufferers.

Persistent respiratory signs after different viral diseases are frequent in COVID-19 lengthy haulers

These of us coping with post-viral syndromes are fairly acquainted with higher respiratory-type signs following different viral-mediated diseases, together with

  • mononucleosis
  • extreme acute respiratory syndrome. 

Within the otolaryngology (ENT) world, we consistently deal with viral diseases from unknown sources that trigger lack of scent, listening to, and voice—and in addition trigger continual cough and shortness of breath.  

This previous June, New York Metropolis-based ENT and Allergy Associates, the biggest single-specialty group of ear, nostril, throat and allergy physicians in the US, started to see sufferers with persistent SOB and/or cough.


They reported that they had been fairly in poor health across the time of the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York Metropolis in March and April 2020.  In a latest examine we revealed, together with Byron Thomashow MD, one of many foremost lung specialists, or pulmonologists, on the Columbia College Medical Middle, we described a TREATABLE trigger for the shortness of breath seen in these sufferers.[4]

Associated content material: COVID-19: The Impression of the Early Failure to Reply

Frequent traits of our group of COVID-19 lengthy haulers

The important thing to determining what could also be the reason for the symptom was to make an correct prognosis. The group of sufferers we noticed had the next frequent traits:

  1. Cough, fever, SOB between March and Could 2020, not severe sufficient to warrant being hospitalized.
  2. The SOB endured for 4-12 weeks on the time we first noticed them.
  3. The SOB was usually not waking these sufferers up at evening. It was additionally not affecting their train tolerance. In actual fact, they usually reported feeling respiratory difficulties after their exercise. Speaking, shouting, singing, karaoke, and odors usually introduced on the SOB.  
  4. As a consequence of restricted entry, solely a handful of the group of sufferers we noticed had been in a position to get examined for COVID-19. Of the group that obtained examined, only some developed antibodies to COVID-19. Additional, solely one of many few examined with the polymerase chain response take a look at was constructive.
  5. Imaging, together with CXR and/or CT scan of the chest, had been all unremarkable.
  6. A handful of sufferers had been in a position to get hold of a lung operate take a look at referred to as spirometry.[5] All of them confirmed a selected sample on the flow-volume loop the place there was flattening of the inspiratory curve. This implies when the affected person took a breath in, there was proof of impaired airflow INTO the lungs. Nonetheless, that they had a traditional expiratory curve, indicating regular airflow OUT of the lungs.

When your vocal cords shut as an alternative of open, you’ll be in need of breath!

Usually when one is sitting, respiratory quietly, one’s vocal cords, or vocal folds, are open, not shut. They shut if you swallow, to guard the lungs. And so they shut and vibrate if you communicate, to make sounds. Then, they open once more.

The vocal folds may be comfortably examined with a tiny digicam whereas the affected person is awake in our examination rooms.

In all of those sufferers, their vocal folds weren’t transferring in regular synch with their respiratory—that’s, they had been closing greater than 50% of the airway throughout quiet respiratory. That is the other of what usually occurs in a wholesome particular person.

The irregular vocal fold closure might be introduced out by having the affected person say the five-word sentence “we see three inexperienced bushes” and observing the vocal folds slowly closing afterward – for so long as 9 seconds. Throughout this time the sufferers really feel as if they will’t catch their breath.

We concluded that the persistent vocal fold closure gave the sufferers their SOB. The flattening of the inspiratory curve on spirometry corroborated the laryngeal examination findings. 

That is totally different than laryngospasm the place the vocal folds out of the blue slam shut for extended durations of time. It additionally has a unique symptom profile. 

What’s vagal neuropathy?

The identify for this irregular vocal fold motion throughout respiratory is vocal fold dysfunction. Additionally it is referred to as paradoxical vocal fold motion dysfunction.[6]

It’s usually brought on by irritation of the vagus nerve.  The vagus nerve is likely one of the 12 cranial nerves that emanate from the mind. It governs respiratory, speaking, swallowing, amongst different very important capabilities.

If a viral sickness causes irritation of the vagus nerve, then respiratory is often going to be disturbed. This post-viral vagus nerve trauma can be referred to as “vagal neuropathy”.

 One of many causes it has historically been troublesome to make the prognosis of post-viral vagal neuropathy is that most individuals are unable to recall when or if that they had a viral sickness. That is very true if the sickness occurred years in the past.

Within the present time of coronavirus, sufferers appear to be paying far more consideration to once they started to really feel in poor health.  

Speech remedy and a low acid eating regimen can deal with vagal neuropathy in COVID-19 lengthy haulers

The excellent news right here is that the reason for this irregular respiratory sample may be handled with two non-invasive, non-pharmacologic means. We used a mixture of approaches:

  • bodily remedy
  • eating regimen modification strategies.

The remedy is named respiratory retraining. This includes elevated resistance respiratory workout routines which are usually administered by a speech-language pathologist. 

A low acid eating regimen additionally works for these sufferers. There are a handful of very acidic meals and drinks which have a pH of lower than 4. These embody 

  • flavored sodas
  • bottled ice teas
  • citrus
  • tomato sauce (tomatoes are okay)
  • vinegar, together with apple cider vinegar
  • wine, are inclined to irritate the respiratory points.

We advocate that these foodstuffs be prevented.  

Utilizing these two strategies, all of our sufferers had decision of their SOB.

There may be hope for a lot of COVID-19 lengthy haulers who’ve shortness of breath

As we study extra about COVID-19 and lengthy haulers we see many who’ve persistent SOB who’ve regular lung imaging. They’re usually advised nothing additional may be carried out for them. Nonetheless, now we have recognized a potential, treatable trigger for his or her signs.

In sufferers with persistent SOB, with or with out cough, the place the pulmonary imaging is unremarkable, one ought to get hold of each a spirometry take a look at and an ENT analysis. This could occur whether or not or not they examined constructive for, or have antibodies to, COVID-19; however actually in these with constructive testing.

This symptom could also be resulting from a virus-related vagus nerve harm. The spirometry has a typical irregular sample and the neuropathy is quickly recognized with an office-based examination of the vocal folds.

As soon as identified, the affected person can obtain the right focused therapy, and, identical to our affected person Sandy, they will return to having fun with their beforehand good high quality of life.


  1. Carfi, A, Bernabei R, et al. Analysis Letter: Persistent Signs in Sufferers After Acute COVID-19; JAMA. 2020;324(6):603-605. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.12603 

  2. Komaroff A. The tragedy of the post-COVID “lengthy haulers”; Harvard Well being Letter, Oct. 15, 2020. https://www.well

  3. Jonathan E A, Sujana C, Byron T. Covid-19 Period Submit Viral Vagal Neuropathy Presenting as Persistent Shortness of Breath with Regular Pulmonary Imaging. Int J Pul & Res Sci. 2020; 4(4): 555641. DOI: 10.19080/IJOPRS.2020.04.555641

  4. American Lung Affiliation. What’s Spirometry and Why is It Accomplished?
  5. Murry T, Branski R, et al. Laryngeal sensory deficits in sufferers with continual cough and paradoxical vocal fold motion dysfunction. Laryngoscope; 2010 Aug;120(8):1576-81. doi: 10.1002/lary.20985.

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