Physical issues after ICU

Patients who are extremely unwell in the ICU can lose their strength. The exact reason for this muscle weakness isn't known. It is likely to be caused by a combination of medications and long period of time spent in bed. This weakness can happen very quickly. The name given to it is “ICU-acquired weakness”.

ICU-acquired weakness

ICU-acquired weakness is known to happen in:

  • 33% of patients requiring a breathing machine
  • 50% of patients with severe infection
  • 50% of patients who stay in the ICU for at least one week

ICU-acquired weakness can have a big impact on your physical function. You may find some activities such as dressing, bathing, eating and walking challenging. The loss of strength may delay you getting back to your usual activities.

Other physical symptoms

You may also experience other symptoms such as altered sensation, vision and hearing. Some patients have communication difficulties. Although you may regain some strength and energy following your discharge from ICU, it can take a while to recover.

Studies show patients can have reduced physical function at six months following their ICU stay.

Other physical effects that you may experience include:

  • long-term organ injury (kidneys, lungs)
  • hair loss
  • reduced appetite
  • joint stiffness
  • reduced endurance and weakness
  • reduced fitness

What is known to help

Working with a rehabilitation team is important. You may be experience mental health issues at the same time as you work on your physical recovery. It is important to ask for help to manage these symptoms as well.

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Related topics

This topic was reviewed by an intensive care medicine specialist in July 2022.

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