Early Neurorehabilitation and Recovery from Disorders of Consciousness After Severe COVID-19

Neurocrit Care. 2022 Apr;36(2):357-371. doi: 10.1007/s12028-021-01359-1. Epub 2021 Oct 5.


Background: Early neurorehabilitation improves outcomes in patients with disorders of consciousness (DoC) after brain injury, but its applicability in COVID-19 is unknown. We describe our experience implementing an early neurorehabilitation protocol for patients with COVID-19-associated DoC in the intensive care unit (ICU) and evaluate factors associated with recovery.

Methods: During the initial COVID-19 surge in New York City between March 10 and May 20, 2020, faced with a disproportionately high number of ICU patients with prolonged unresponsiveness, we developed and implemented an early neurorehabilitation protocol, applying standard practices from brain injury rehabilitation care to the ICU setting. Twenty-one patients with delayed recovery of consciousness after severe COVID-19 participated in a pilot early neurorehabilitation program that included serial Coma Recovery Scale-Revised (CRS-R) assessments, multimodal treatment, and access to clinicians specializing in brain injury medicine. We retrospectively compared clinical features of patients who did and did not recover to the minimally conscious state (MCS) or better, defined as a CRS-R total score (TS) ≥ 8, before discharge. We additionally examined factors associated with best CRS-R TS, last CRS-R TS, hospital length of stay, and time on mechanical ventilation.

Results: Patients underwent CRS-R assessments a median of six (interquartile range [IQR] 3-10) times before discharge, beginning a median of 48 days (IQR 40-55) from admission. Twelve (57%) patients recovered to MCS after a median of 8 days (IQR 2-14) off continuous sedation; they had lower body mass index (p = 0.009), lower peak serum C-reactive protein levels (p = 0.023), higher minimum arterial partial pressure of oxygen (p = 0.028), and earlier fentanyl discontinuation (p = 0.018). CRS-R scores fluctuated over time, and the best CRS-R TS was significantly higher than the last CRS-R TS (median 8 [IQR 5-23] vs. 5 [IQR 3-18], p = 0.002). Earlier fentanyl (p = 0.001) and neuromuscular blockade (p = 0.015) discontinuation correlated with a higher last CRS-R TS.

Conclusions: More than half of our cohort of patients with prolonged unresponsiveness following severe COVID-19 recovered to MCS or better before hospital discharge, achieving a clinical benchmark known to have relatively favorable long-term prognostic implications in DoC of other etiologies. Hypoxia, systemic inflammation, sedation, and neuromuscular blockade may impact diagnostic assessment and prognosis, and fluctuations in level of consciousness make serial assessments essential. Early neurorehabilitation of these patients in the ICU can be accomplished but is associated with unique challenges. Further research should evaluate factors associated with longer-term neurologic recovery and benefits of early rehabilitation in patients with severe COVID-19.

Keywords: COVID-19; Coma; Early neurological rehabilitation; SARS-CoV-2; Unconsciousness.

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19* / complications
  • Consciousness
  • Consciousness Disorders / etiology
  • Humans
  • Neurological Rehabilitation*
  • Recovery of Function
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Treatment Outcome