Covid-19, the illness resulting from an infection with the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, comes with a range of symptoms. Primarily, though, the virus targets the respiratory system, and it is closely associated with pneumonia. In this article, we explore the links between pneumonia and Covid-19, examine the risks of developing pneumonia after a Covid-19 infection has resolved, and look at how osteopathy helps.
Covid-19 infections, even mild ones, come with a risk of developing Covid pneumonia. Pneumonia is an inflammatory condition of the lungs, and can be caused by various pathogens, including bacteria, viruses and fungi.
In Covid pneumonia, the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which largely affects the upper respiratory tract, pervades deep into the lungs.
It takes hold in the alveoli, the tiny air sacs where gaseous exchange happens. Here, it can damage the delicate lining of the alveoli, causing scarring and inhibiting oxygen uptake.
In addition, the infection triggers inflammation, a natural defence mechanism of the immune system. In the same way that an inflamed joint swells, fluid builds up in the lungs, causing shortness of breath and coughing.
Researchers have found certain differences in the way Covid pneumonia develops, compared to pneumonia of other causes. It tends to affect both lungs rather than one, and blood tests show other problems such as liver function abnormalities.
Studies have also shown the mechanisms that allow Covid to get deep into the lungs. First, the virus attaches to certain receptors in the airway linings. These receptors are mostly in the upper respiratory tract, but some people have a high density in the lungs, allowing the virus to take hold.
Second, the Covid virus can hijack the body’s own defence system. It piggybacks on white blood cells to transfer from cell to cell.
In this way, Covid spreads gradually deep into the lungs. Scientists think this explains why Covid pneumonia starts slowly, sometimes only appearing weeks after the initial infection, and lasts for longer than other types of pneumonia.
Pneumonia – a respiratory double threat
The respiratory risk, however, is not limited to a direct infection by the Covid virus. Covid-19 patients are at increased risk of developing pneumonia as a complication of the primary infection.
The inflammation and immune stress linked to a Covid infection set up a perfect environment for secondary infections to take hold, such as bacterial pneumonia. This double hit to the respiratory system can result in significant illness.
Some people are more vulnerable to developing severe pneumonia following a Covid-19 infection. Patients with an immune system that’s already compromised, or those with pre-existing respiratory conditions such as COPD, for example, are at greater risk. The elderly, too, generally have weaker immune systems and less efficient lung function, making serious illness more likely.
Post-Covid risks of pneumonia
Once a Covid infection has passed, then, does the risk of developing pneumonia drop back to baseline? For most people, there will be no long-lasting effects, and they’re at no greater risk of developing pneumonia afterwards than anyone else.
However, the evidence suggests that for some, the risks of pneumonia remain elevated, even after the SARS-CoV-2 virus has left their systems. Why is this the case?
First, people who had more severe respiratory symptoms during their Covid infection may have lingering lung damage. This manifests as scarring or fibrosis in the lung tissue due to the original infection, which impairs normal lung function. Pneumonia is more likely to develop in people with compromised lung health due to the residual damage caused by the virus.
Second, the immune system needs time to recover from the impact of a Covid-19 infection once the virus has cleared. This means there is a period of susceptibility to other infections, which can last for weeks or months after the acute illness has resolved.
Third, around 10–20% of people experience new, ongoing or recurring symptoms for months after their Covid infection has resolved. This chronic condition, known as ‘long Covid’ or ‘post-acute sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 infection’ (PASC), involves respiratory symptoms that indicate ongoing lung inflammation and damage. Such damage compromises health and contributes to a higher risk of contracting pneumonia in the future.
Managing post-Covid-19 pneumonia
The first step in managing pneumonia is diagnosis. Prompt treatment is key to prevent the condition worsening. Anyone who experiences symptoms such as fever, productive cough or breathing difficulties in the weeks or months following a Covid infection should seek medical advice.
Prevention, however, is better than cure. It’s important for people with lingering respiratory symptoms to ensure they maximise their lung health to limit the risk of contracting further infections.
Osteopathy can play a role in improving respiratory function.
How can osteopathy reduce the pneumonia risk?
At the heart of osteopathy is the idea that we can help the body to function at its best by removing obstacles that inhibit that function. Although osteopaths can’t resolve damage to lung tissue, there are many ways they can encourage good respiratory health.
- Enhanced rib mobility : by treating the rib joints, the muscles of the chest wall and the diaphragm, osteopathy promotes flexibility and elasticity of the ribcage, allowing full expansion during breathing.
- Improved posture : ensuring good alignment of the spine, pelvis, chest, neck and shoulders has a positive effect on breathing mechanics.
- Optimized nerve function : restrictions in the neck and upper back can adversely affect the nerves that supply the diaphragm (phrenic nerves) and the chest wall, and the autonomic nervous system that regulates our breathing. Using gentle manipulation and mobilisation, osteopathy can free these restrictions, enhancing neural function.
- Maximized blood flow : gentle soft tissue and mobilization techniques improve tissue health by encouraging good circulation.
- Reduced congestion : the circulatory system includes lymph drainage, an important part of our immunity. Osteopathic techniques promote good fluid drainage, boosting the immune system and reducing congestion.
- Better breathing : your osteopath can guide you in breathing exercises designed to increase your respiratory capability.
Osteopathy, then, is a natural approach to good respiratory health. The holistic treatment uses multiple ways to facilitate good lung function – by working directly on the joints and soft tissues of the chest, by working more widely to ensure good alignment, and by enhancing fluid circulation and nerve function.
Find out how we can help you
Here at OCHK, our osteopaths are experienced in working with people who have had respiratory illnesses. And, to really boost your respiratory vitality, we can combine osteopathy with our other therapies, such as Corrective Exercise Therapy or Yoga Therapy.
If you’re interested in looking after your respiratory health, book in today with our expert team.