Long Covid sufferers who sing lullabies find it easier to breathe, study finds

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Singing lullabies like ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ could help put long Covid to bed, a trial suggests.

The English National Opera’s Breathe programme has been running since late 2020 with aim of using singing techniques to help people who suffer Covid symptoms like breathlessness weeks after recovering from the virus itself.

It sees long Covid sufferers attend six weekly workshop sessions with an ENO singer where they take part in exercises designed support breathing control like singing lullabies and making noises with straws.

Lullabies were chosen as the exercise songs as they are short, designed to be calming, and are easy to remember. 

Now the results of a trial comparing the outcomes of ENO Breathe attendees with a control group has found the programme does improve the condition of long Covid sufferers.

With an estimated 1.3million Britons living with long Covid, experts said it is critical that new evidence based treatments are developed.

Could singing hold the key to busting long Covid? A randomised trial involving 150 Britons and the English National Opera suggests so (stock image)

Could singing hold the key to busting long Covid? A randomised trial involving 150 Britons and the English National Opera suggests so (stock image)

What is Long Covid and what does the NHS recommend for it?

As of January 2, an estimated 1.33 million people in the UK were estimated to have long Covid, according to the Office of National Statistics.

Long Covid is an informal term, used to describe ongoing symptoms following a Covid infection that go on longer than 12 weeks.  

A dizzying array of symptoms have been attributed to long Covid, including: 

  • extreme tiredness (fatigue)
  • shortness of breath
  • chest pain or tightness
  • problems with memory and concentration (‘brain fog’)
  • difficulty sleeping (insomnia)
  • heart palpitations
  • dizziness
  • pins and needles
  • joint pain
  • depression and anxiety
  • tinnitus, earaches
  • feeling sick, diarrhoea, stomach aches, loss of appetite
  • a high temperature, cough, headaches, sore throat, changes to sense of smell or taste
  • rashes

Long Covid is a poorly understood condition, which can leave survivors with fatigue, shortness of breath and memory problems months after their illness.

There is no known cure with the NHS instead aiming to provide ways suffers can alleviate their symptoms or improve their condition.

In the trial, a team of Imperial College London researchers compared the results of 150 long Covid sufferers, 74 of which took part in the ENO’s Breathe programme with the remainder receiving general NHS treatment for the condition.

After six weeks the researchers asked each participant to score their breathlessness at rest, walking, climbing stairs, and running out of 100. 

While both groups experienced improvements in their condition over the study period the singing group saw bigger reductions in their breathlessness scores. 

Singing patients reported an average 10.48 point reduction in their breathlessness while running compared to the control group.

They also recorded a 8.44 drop in breathlessness while climbing stairs, and a 2.72 fall in being short of breath while walking.

However, the non-singers reported a slightly greater improvement in their average breathlessness with this metric dropping 3.9 points compared to just a 2.52 reduction in the singing group. 

Participants were also compared on improvements in their mental health over the six weeks.

Researchers found singers had an average 2.42 point improvement after the program compared to the control group.

One Breathe participant, a 44-year-old woman, said: ‘I felt that ENO Breathe has been healing for the trauma I have experienced and continue to experience: of having an unknown illness, not knowing if I will ever [be] getting better, and of receiving barely any medical care, for over a year.’

Lead author of the study, Imperial’s Dr Keir Philip, an expert in heart and lung health, said with an estimated one in 50 people experiencing long Covid finding new evidence based treatments were crucial.      

‘Our study suggests that the improvements in symptoms experienced by participants, resulted from both practical breathing techniques learnt, but also the creative, humane, and positive way the programme is delivered,’ he said. 

Fellow author Dr Sarah Elkin, a respiratory care specialist said Britain’s recovery from the pandemic must include ways to help long Covid sufferers.   

‘It’s vital we find ways to support people with long Covid who are experiencing debilitating symptoms long after recovering from their initial Covid infection,’ she said. 

An Office for National Statistics (ONS) report estimated 1.33million adults were suffering symptoms of long Covid as of January 2. The graph above shows the change in long-Covid prevalence during the pandemic but gives the rate in thousands

An Office for National Statistics (ONS) report estimated 1.33million adults were suffering symptoms of long Covid as of January 2. The graph above shows the change in long-Covid prevalence during the pandemic but gives the rate in thousands

ENO chair, Dr Harry Brünjes, said the opera company was extremely proud of its Breathe programme and how it had helped people experiencing debilitating long-term Covid symptoms. 

‘Research like this demonstrates the enormous benefit the arts can have when applied in a medical context,’ he said.

One limitation of the study is that participants were asked to rate their breathlessness rather than lung function being measured with medical instruments with researchers choosing this option to increase participation in the study. 

Another is that the vast majority of the participants were white women with an average age of 49 years, meaning the findings may be limited.

In February an Office of National Statistics report estimated 1.33million adults were suffering from long Covid symptoms as of January 2.

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