Sometimes it’s hard to pick apart the cause of symptoms. Am I anxious because the bus is late or because Covid-19’s insidious shadow is still lingering all these months later?
The full scope of the novel coronavirus is still unknown, in part because the virus is still new. Lasting neurological symptoms are leading doctors to inquire about the full extent of subtle symptoms.
In a story from Physicians Weekly,
reports of potentially lingering symptoms in the early days of the pandemic led specialists at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago to take the jump into the research, opening one of the first clinics of its kind in May of 2020, devoted specifically to those suffering from long-term neurological consequences.
There, they noticed that many of the patients with long-term effects were not the same patients who initially had a bad case when they originally caught COVID. This led them to inquire about the nature of the long-lasting neurological consequences, which seemed to be due to something else.
In a study published in Annals of Clinical and Translational Neurology
, scientists at Northwestern University studied patients who’d had an easy bout of COVID-19 but had visited the clinic due to long-lasting symptoms. They searched for common symptom patterns and patient experiences using questionnaires, neurological exams, cognitive function testing, and diagnostic testing which looked at the quality of life.
100 Consecutive Patients
They used findings from 100 consecutive visitors to the clinic starting in May up until November of 2020. All of the patient’s originally had mild coronavirus symptoms, none of whom had originally been hospitalized. On average, patients were 43 years of age and 70% of the participants were women.
Because of the limited supply of COVID tests in the beginning of the pandemic and because many of the patients with long-term consequences originally had mild cases, some of the participants never were officially diagnosed with COVID.
The Neurological Symptoms That Lingered
Within the study group of patients with mild cases of COVID-19 but who had lingering effects, patients reported an average of five major neurological symptoms. The most common symptoms reported included brain fog (81%), headaches (68%), numbness or tingling (60%), altered sense of taste [dysgeusia] (59%), loss of sense of smell [anosmia] (55%), Myalgia (55%), dizziness (47%), pain (43%), blurred vision (30%), and tinnitus (29%).
On average, 85% of patients reported experiencing at least four of the effects above. While symptoms occurred sporadically, most participants reported they were still being affected by the symptoms occasionally or commonly at the time of their visit to the clinic.
The study’s co-author Jeffry R Clark, said to BreakingMED,
“A main message from our study is that even in patients with mild initial disease, the potential for long-lasting neurologic symptoms is there, and these symptoms can be debilitating.”
According to patient reports, participants reported they felt they were on average at 64% of their previously functioning health baseline five months after the illness.
Other long lasting symptoms not of neurological origin consist of fatigue (85%), depression/anxiety (47%), shortness of breath (46%), chest pain (37%), and insomnia (33%).
In another study conducted at the Chicago based clinic, they gathered data on COVID-19 patients who had been hospitalized, amongst whom they found 82% reported lingering symptoms as well.
While the study was only meant to survey symptoms rather than provide potential explanations, the authors did note the significance of the large portion being female, which mirrors a similar gender ratio that follows the pattern of autoimmune disorders including multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis. They also found comorbidity with anxiety, autoimmune disorders, insomnia, and lung disease. To the researchers, this implied the presence of an autoimmune mechanism.
As the world begins to rev up its engine again, COVID-19’s shadow will undoubtedly continue to take new shapes. The doctors caution that the true long term impact of the disease will be substantial. They write,
“The long-term impact of “long COVID” on quality of life and potential return to normalcy, through lost productivity and lingering cognitive dysfunction, may be substantial as the pandemic continues to escalate.”
The researchers hope their study is just one of the first to find out the long-term cognitive impact of the novel coronavirus.