By Miriam E. Tucker, Medscape News, 05 August 2022
Data for a different system derangement in long COVID and ME/CFS, the pathophysiology of exercise intolerance, were presented in another keynote talk by David M. Systrom, MD, a pulmonary and critical care medicine specialist at Brigham and Women's Hospital and director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Cardiopulmonary Laboratory, Boston. He has conducted invasive cardiopulmonary exercise testing in patients with ME/CFS and patients with long COVID.
Previously, Systrom and his team found that patients with ME/CFS have distinct defects in both ventricular filling pressure and oxygen extraction from the muscles. Neither of those are features of deconditioning, which is often blamed for exercise intolerance in people with ME/CFS. Rather, the major defect in deconditioning is decreased stroke volume and cardiac output. In ME/CFS patients, he found supranormal pulmonary blood flow compared with VO2 max, suggesting peripheral left-to-right shunting.
In addition, Systrom and colleagues found that a large proportion of ME/CFS patients with these peripheral vascular defects also have biopsy-demonstrated small-fiber neuropathy, suggesting that acute exercise intolerance is related to underlying autonomic nervous system dysfunction.
In Systrom and colleagues' long COVID study, invasive cardiopulmonary exercise testing in 10 patients who had recovered from COVID-19 at least 6 months prior and did not have cardiopulmonary disease had significantly revealed reduced peak exercise aerobic capacity (VO2 max), compared with 10 age- and sex-matched controls. The reduction in peak VO2 was associated with impaired systemic oxygen extraction, compared with the controls, despite a preserved peak cardiac index.
The long COVID patients also showed greater ventilatory inefficiency, which “is entirely related to hyperventilation, not intrinsic lung disease,” Systrom said, adding that while there may be subsets of patients with interstitial lung disease after acute respiratory distress syndrome, these patients didn't have that. “This for all the world looks like ME/CFS. We think they are frighteningly similar, if not identical,” Systrom said.
In a third study for which Systrom was a co-author, published in Annals of Neurology last December, multisystem involvement was found in nine patients following mild COVID-19 infection, using standardized autonomic assessments including Valsalva maneuver, sudomotor and tilt tests, and skin biopsies for small-fiber neuropathy. The findings included cerebrovascular dysregulation with persistent cerebral arteriolar vasoconstriction, small-fiber neuropathy and related dysautonomia, respiratory dysregulation, and chronic inflammation.
Systrom's conclusion: “Dyspnea and hyperventilation are common in ME/CFS and long COVID and there is significant overlap with POTS.”