WEDNESDAY, April 6 (HealthDay News) -- Survivors of a little-known critical illness known as acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) remain physically and emotionally weak five years after recovering, despite the fact that their lungs heal almost completely, a new study indicates.
Following 109 ARDS patients -- 86 percent of whom participated in a previous one-year study -- Canadian researchers observed they had not returned to normal physical functioning five years after prolonged treatment in the intensive care unit. Lasting effects included low scores on general health and vitality as well as lingering disability from muscle and nerve damage, stiff joints, scarring from breathing tubes and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The study, which is the first to track ARDS patients long-term, is published in the April 7 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.
"If you're a critical care physician, these are some of the sickest patients [you'll see] in the intensive care unit," said study author Dr. Margaret Herridge, a clinical researcher and pulmonary and critical care physician at Toronto General Hospital. "It's a huge issue, and yet really under the radar. These are the patients who keep us up at night."
ARDS, a severe form of lung inflammation, strikes about 170,000 Americans each year, Herridge said, killing 30 percent to 40 percent of its victims. Triggered by other serious illnesses such as pneumonia and sepsis, or resulting from a traumatic injury, the condition leads to average ICU stays of about four weeks and several months of inpatient treatment overall.
Study participants were relatively young, with an average age of 44, and underwent exams such as pulmonary function tests, a six-minute walk test, chest imaging and a quality-of-life evaluation.
While pulmonary function was normal or nearly normal in all patients five years after t
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