Once you are able to breathe unaided and you no longer need intensive care, you will be transferred to a different ward to continue your recovery. Depending on your condition, this will usually either be a High Dependency Unit (HDU), which is one level down from intensive care, or a general ward.

The road to recovery is unique for every patient.

Healthcare workers in critical care have realised, for many years, that a stay in ICU can lead to serious short and long term physical and mental problems. The time it takes to recover completely varies greatly from person to person. It will also depend on factors such as:

  • your age,
  • how much weight you have lost,
  • the severity and length of time you have been ill,
  • your previous state of health.


Common recovery problems

Being in intensive care can put an enormous strain on you, both physically and emotionally. Even after you have been discharged from hospital, your recovery may be slow. Some of the most common problems you may encounter while recovering are described below.

Severe weakness and tiredness

gripDuring the time you were inactive in ICU your muscles will have become weak and even a little movement may seem impossible at first. It will take time for your muscles to build up strength again. When a joint has not been used for a while it stiffens up, even in young people. This stiffness will ease as the joint is used more. Exercising the muscles will help and the ward staff and physiotherapist will support your efforts and give you exercises to do. Setting short term, realistic goals for yourself will help you feel more independent. Gradually building up the amount of exercise you do is better than trying too hard one day and being unable to do anything the next.

Tiredness is the most common problem of recovery, this will improve with time, but it is important not to spend all your time resting and sleeping either, as you will feel even less fit.

Many people who have been in intensive care start to feel better after two to three months. However, it may take as long as six months before your energy levels are fully back to normal. If you have had a severe trauma, such as a head injury, it may take even longer.


Weak voice

If you were on a ventilator to help you breathe during your stay in intensive care, your voice may be husky or croaky. However, this should improve quite quickly.

It is also not unusual at first to experience a feeling of breathlessness that cannot be explained by relating it to physical exertion. Sometimes it is related to something as simple as talking. Please discuss this with the medical/nursing staff or physiotherapist.


Inability to grip small items

After being in intensive care for some time, you may also find it difficult to grip small items. For example, at first, you may not be able to hold a pen to write.



You may find you have difficulty getting off to sleep or your sleep is broken. Your sleep pattern will have been severely disrupted and it will take some time to get back into your normal routine. If you are inactive during the day or need to nap in the day you may find you cannot sleep so well at night. Increasing your daytime activity will probably make you more tired by the evening.

Relaxing herbal or milky drinks may be helpful before bed or a warm bath or shower. Do not worry if your sleep is disturbed for some time.


Nightmares, vivid recurrent dreams and flashbacks are not unusual occurrences after ICU and in time should stop. Please talk to the Outreach staff about any of these issues, they may be able to help you understand the content and why they are occurring. Hallucinations are also not uncommon whilst in ICU and are usually the result of a combination of illness and drugs used to keep you asleep and comfortable.


 Feeling depressed

depressionIt is quite normal to have a fluctuating mood after illness. This is part of the process of accepting your illness and your present situation. Talking about your fears and feelings may help.

Sometimes mood changes can become more extreme. Some people who have been in intensive care develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This can cause sleep problems and panic attacks (including palpitations, breathlessness and tingling in your hands or feet), as well as distressing images or sensations.

If you have PTSD, it should pass within a month of leaving hospital. However, if it does not, or if you are finding it difficult to cope for any other reason, you should visit your GP or return to your follow-up clinic or outreach service.

Another extreme mood change is depression. Some people experience anxiety (feelings of unease) while in an ICU and, in some cases, this can get worse after being discharged. Some people may:

  • Have a persistently low mood
  • Feel tearful
  • Be unable to enjoy anything
  • Be not able to sleep
  • Have a poor appetite lasting more than two weeks

 If you are concerned about feeling depressed, it is important to speak to your nurse, doctor or the outreach team because early intervention improves your ability to cope with your illness and reduces the recovery time.


 Cognitive function

After being in intensive care, some people experience problems with their cognitive function (mental ability). For example, you may find it difficult to concentrate or have trouble remembering things. Decision-making may also appear difficult but should improve over time.


The Trust has several systems in place to speed your progression to a full mental and physical recovery: