Covid-19 patients who continue to be short of breath during physical activity for more than a year after recovering may have suffered heart damage, according to a small study presented at the EuroEcho 2021.

The study aimed to find out whether subclinical heart abnormalities were more common in long Covid patients with dyspnoea (shortness of breath) – a common side effect of long Covid.

The study included 66 patients who had no previous heart or lung conditions and were hospitalised with Covid-19 between March and April 2020. The average age of participants was 50 years and 67% were men.

Poorer heart performance in patients with dyspnoea 

The patients were followed up one year after discharge. The researchers examined heart function by performing cardiac ultrasound and a new imaging technique called myocardial work, which provides more precise information on heart function than previous methods.

Spirometry and chest computed tomography were also used to assess lung function and possible sequela of Covid-19.

After one year, more than a third of patients (35%) had shortness of breath during effort. The researchers examined the association between imaging measure of heart function and shortness of breath and found that abnormal heart function was independently and significantly associated with persistent dyspnoea.

Cardiac imaging revealed poorer heart performance in patients with dyspnoea compared to those without one year after discharge from hospital.

Myocardial work could be used for early identification of heart problems in patients with long Covid

Study author Dr. Maria-Luiza Luchian of University Hospital Brussels, Belgium, said the findings could help to explain why some patients with long Covid still experience breathlessness long after they have recovered from the infection, and indicate that it might be linked with a decrease in heart performance.

She added: “Myocardial work could be a new echocardiographic tool for early identification of heart function abnormalities in patients with long Covid-19, who might need more frequent and long-term cardiac surveillance.

“Future studies including different Covid-19 variants and the impact of vaccination are needed to confirm our results on the long-term evolution and possible cardiac consequences of this disease.”