Persistent Shortness of Breath Resulting from Treatable Nerve Harm

(Picture supply: iStock)

Persistent shortness of breath in COVID-19 lengthy haulers could also be as a consequence of a treatable nerve harm. This can be a reminder that shortness of breath shouldn’t be at all times pulmonary. 

Sandy’s story

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

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

She had scientific signs of delicate COVID-19 illness in March 2020. Nonetheless, she was not examined as a consequence of 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 weight loss program and doing speech remedy through telemedicine (as a result of ongoing pandemic). Six weeks later, Sandy was in a position to keep it up 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 hundreds of individuals.  

SOB is a outstanding symptom in individuals with what has come to be generally known as the COVID-19 “lengthy hauler” syndrome.  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 could exist a persistence of a wide range of signs that appear to defy additional prognosis and remedy.

Two varieties of COVID-19 lengthy haulers

In keeping with Dr. Anthony Komaroff, MD, Editor in Chief of the Harvard Well being Letter, there are two primary varieties of COVID-19 lengthy haulers:

  • 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. One of the fashionable theories comes from Dr. Anthony Fauci MD, Director of the Nationwide Institute of Allergy and Infectious Illnesses 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 generally known as continual fatigue syndrome. 

As soon as this prognosis is made, and since COVID-19 is a brand new illness, little or no hope is obtainable. We consider that we have now recognized a treatable diagnostic risk that does in actual fact supply 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 conversant in higher respiratory-type signs following different viral-mediated diseases, together with

  • mononucleosis
  • extreme acute respiratory syndrome. 

Within the otolaryngology (ENT) world, we always deal with viral diseases from unknown sources that trigger lack of odor, 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 most important 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 have 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 current examine we revealed, together with Byron Thomashow MD, one of many foremost lung specialists, or pulmonologists, on the Columbia College Medical Heart, we described a TREATABLE trigger for the shortness of breath seen in these sufferers.

Associated content material: COVID-19: The Affect 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 critical sufficient to warrant being hospitalized.
  2. The SOB persevered for 4-12 weeks on the time we first noticed them.
  3. The SOB was usually not waking these sufferers up at night time. It was additionally not affecting their train tolerance. In reality, they usually reported feeling respiratory difficulties after their exercise. Speaking, shouting, singing, karaoke, and odors usually introduced on the SOB.  
  4. Resulting from restricted entry, solely a handful of the group of sufferers we noticed have been in a position to get examined for COVID-19. Of the group that bought examined, just a few developed antibodies to COVID-19. Additional, solely one of many few examined with the polymerase chain response check was constructive.
  5. Imaging, together with CXR and/or CT scan of the chest, have been all unremarkable.
  6. A handful of sufferers have been in a position to get hold of a lung operate check referred to as spirometry. 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, they’d a standard expiratory curve, indicating regular airflow OUT of the lungs.

When your vocal cords shut as an alternative of open, you may be wanting breath!

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

The vocal folds could 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 shifting in regular synch with their respiratory—that’s, they have been closing greater than 50% of their airway throughout quiet respiratory. That is the alternative of what usually occurs in a wholesome particular person.

The irregular vocal fold closure could possibly be introduced out by having the affected person say the five-word sentence “we see three inexperienced timber” and observing the vocal folds slowly closing afterward – for so long as 9 seconds. Throughout this time the sufferers really feel as if they’ll’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 completely different than laryngospasm the place the vocal folds instantly slam shut for extended intervals of time. It additionally has a distinct symptom profile. 

What’s vagal neuropathy?

The title for this irregular vocal fold motion throughout respiratory is vocal fold dysfunction. It is usually referred to as paradoxical vocal fold motion dysfunction.

It’s usually attributable to irritation of the vagus nerve.  The vagus nerve is among 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 usually 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 they’d a viral sickness. That is very true if the sickness befell years in the past.

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

Speech remedy and a low acid weight loss program can deal with vagal neuropathy in COVID-19 lengthy haulers

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

  • bodily remedy
  • weight loss program modification methods.

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

A low acid weight loss program 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 likely to irritate the respiratory points.

We suggest that these foodstuffs be averted.  

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

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

As we be taught extra about COVID-19 and lengthy haulers we see many who’ve persistent SOB who’ve regular lung imaging. They’re usually informed nothing additional could be achieved for them. Nonetheless, we have now recognized a doable, 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 check and an ENT analysis. This could occur whether or not or not they examined constructive for, or have antibodies to, COVID-19; however definitely in these with constructive testing.

This symptom could also be as a consequence of 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 recognized, the affected person can obtain the right focused remedy, and, identical to our affected person Sandy, they’ll return to having fun with their beforehand good high quality of life.


  1. American Lung Affiliation. What’s Spirometry and Why is It Finished?
  2. 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 

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

  4. Jonathan E A, Sujana C, Byron T. Covid-19 Period Put up 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

  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.
  6. CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Symptom Period and Danger Components for Delayed Return to Standard Well being Amongst Outpatients with COVID-19 in a Multistate Well being Care Programs Community — United States, March–June 2020 Weekly / July 31, 2020 / 69(30);993-998

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *