It's a complex disease that can affect people long after they recover from the acute phase. One local "long-hauler" found a faster path to healing.
Last summer, 55-year-old running enthusiast Jeff Stone of Long Beach was at the top of his game when COVID-19 took him down.
"You feel like you have an elephant sitting on your chest," he said, "It's like every breath hurt. It burned."
A lung X-ray revealed the classic ground glass scarring.
Stone said, "I remember saying to the nurse there. At this point, just please knock me out and put me on a ventilator because I couldn't deal with the pain."
That nurse gave him one piece of advice.
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"Keep yourself moving. Keep your lungs working," Stone recalled.
He did. After a month, he turned the corner. But the breathing issues persisted.
"It wasn't in my lungs anymore. I kept describing to people that it feels like if I could just swallow or something's in my throat like blocking my breathing," Stone said.
Tests revealed nothing. So Stone took to the internet.
"What kept popping up was the vagus nerve in the body, which controls things like related to digestion and respiratory," he said.
Dr. Matthew Lutch is an ear, nose and throat specialist with Kaiser Permanente Southern California.
"The vagus nerve provides sensation to the throat and voice box -- that is to say, the wiring for the muscles that are so important for our speaking and our swallowing," Lutch said.
Lutch has been seeing evidence of viral nerve damage in many COVID-19 survivors. In Stone's case, his doctors believe vagus nerve dysfunction was affecting the muscles around his voice box, inhibiting his breathing. In many cases, voice therapy can help.
"Voice therapy will allow you to optimize what you're doing with the muscles of not just the throat in the voice box but also the neck, the chest, the diaphragm," Lutch said.
Stone said, "That seemed to be the big ticket for me. I was learning these exercises of how to breathe in a different way to reopen my vocal cords. "
He also incorporated a low-acid diet to prevent reflux. Now, Stone is running up to 2 miles a day and getting stronger. He started a Facebook support group to help others.
"How many people are out there that don't know this," Stone said. "And this could help so many people."
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