New York Times: How Long Covid Exhausts the Body

February 23, 2022


“This is a really interesting article with some brilliant illustrations that attempt to explain what might be causing the symptoms and chronic ill-health in people with Long Covid. We have taken extracts from those headings within the article that specifically mention ME/CFS, but the whole piece is well-worth taking your time to read. We will shortly be publishing a guide to Long Covid and ME/CFS that explores the similarities and differences between the two conditions – members of the charity will find this as an article in the new issue of ME Essential magazine.”

Russell Fleming, Communications Manager, ME Association

By Josh Keller, February 19, 2022

Millions of people continue to suffer from exhaustion, cognitive problems and other long-lasting symptoms after a coronavirus infection. The exact causes of the illness, known as long Covid, are not known. But new research offers clues, describing the toll the illness takes on the body and why it can be so debilitating.

1. Diagnosing Long Covid

Patients with severe Covid may wind up in hospitals or on ventilators until their symptoms resolve. Damage to the body from severe Covid — pneumonia, low oxygen, inflammation — typically shows up on traditional diagnostic tests.

Long Covid is different: A chronic illness with a wide variety of symptoms, many of which are not explainable using conventional lab tests. Difficulties in detecting the illness have led some doctors to dismiss patients, or to misdiagnose their symptoms as psychosomatic. But researchers looking more deeply at long Covid patients have found visible dysfunction throughout the body.

Studies estimate that perhaps 10 to 30 percent of people infected with the coronavirus may develop long-term symptoms. It’s unclear why some people develop long Covid and others don’t, but four factors appear to increase the risk: high levels of viral RNA early during an infection, the presence of certain autoantibodies, the reactivation of Epstein-Barr virus and having Type 2 diabetes.

2. The Immune System

To read more click the link to the main article above.

3. The Circulatory System

Many long Covid patients struggle with physical activity long after their initial infection, and experience a relapse of symptoms if they exercise. Initial studies suggest that dysfunction in the circulatory system might impair the flow of oxygen to muscles and other tissues, limiting aerobic capacity and causing severe fatigue.

In one study, patients with long-lasting Covid symptoms had unexpected responses to riding a bike. Despite having apparently normal hearts and lungs, their muscles were only able to extract a portion of the normal amount of oxygen from small blood vessels as they pedaled, markedly reducing their exercise capacity.

One possible culprit: Chronic inflammation may damage nerve fibers that help control circulation, a condition called small fiber neuropathy. The damaged fibers, seen in skin biopsies, are associated with dysautonomia, a malfunction of automatic functions like heart rate, breathing and digestion that is very common in long Covid patients.

These findings demonstrate that people with long Covid are suffering systemic physical problems, rather than just being anxious or out of shape, said Dr. David M. Systrom, an exercise physiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital who helped conduct the bike study.

“You can’t make up small fiber neuropathy by skin biopsy. That isn’t in somebody’s head,” Dr. Systrom said. “You can’t make up poor oxygen extraction to this degree. All of these are objective measures of disease.”

South African researchers found another circulation problem: Microscopic blood clots. Tiny clots that form during an initial Covid infection will typically break down naturally, but might persist in long Covid patients. These clots could block the tiny capillaries that carry oxygen to tissues throughout the body.

Inflammatory substances called cytokines, which are often elevated in long Covid patients, may injure the mitochondria that power the body’s cells, making them less able to use oxygen. Walls of blood vessels may also become inflamed, limiting the uptake of oxygen.

Whatever the cause, low oxygen levels may contribute to long Covid’s most common symptom, severe fatigue. Some long Covid patients meet the criteria for ME/CFS (also known as chronic fatigue syndrome), which often starts after a viral infection. Researchers have found that ME/CFS patients also suffer from a lack of oxygen triggered by circulatory problems. That puts enormous strain on the body’s metabolism and makes simple activities feel like strenuous exercise.

4. The Brain

Even people with mild cases of Covid can experience sustained cognitive impairments, including reduced attention, memory and word-finding. Possible long-term neurological problems from Covid constitute “a major public health crisis,” according to Dr. Avindra Nath, the clinical director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

Researchers found a wide range of dysfunction in the brains of long Covid patients. Although it is unclear how often the virus directly penetrates the brain, even mild infections appear to cause significant brain inflammation, according to the researchers, who included Dr. Nath, Dr. Iwasaki and Dr. Michelle Monje, a neurologist at Stanford.

Infections may trigger the over-activation of immune cells called microglia in a way that appears similar to the process that can contribute to cognitive problems in aging and some neurodegenerative diseases.

Another research group found that long Covid may significantly reduce the amount of blood that reaches the brain, a finding that has was also seen in patients with a related chronic condition, ME/CFS, before the pandemic.

5. The Lungs

To read more click the link to the main article above.

6. Living with Long Covid

To read more click the link to the main article above.

Free Information from the ME Association: Covid-19, Long Covid, & ME/CFS

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