New study suggests long COVID can cause nerve damage

by mcardinal

Lauren Dempsey, MS in Biomedicine and Law, RN, FISM News 


A recent study out of Massachusetts has revealed that a high rate of people who suffer from long COVID have also developed nerve damage, leading scientists to believe that this condition is one of the many symptoms associated with the mysterious disease.

It is estimated that about 1 in 3 people will who contract COVID-19 will have symptoms that persist after two weeks. Doctors and scientists have labeled this condition long COVID or post-acute COVID-19, and it has caused a variety of symptoms in patients which can last months after infection. These symptoms are similar to COVID-19 but less severe and can cause difficulty breathing, headaches, fatigue, brain fog, depression, and sleep disturbances.

The condition has stumped doctors to a certain degree, as it has proved challenging to determine why some people develop long COVID and others do not. The condition has shown it can develop in the healthy and young and has also occurred in vaccinated individuals that experience a breakthrough infection. 

Researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital and the National Institutes of Health published their research on long COVID in Neurology: Neuroimmunology & Neuroinflammation last month that indicated that neuropathy (or nerve damage) is another likely symptom of long Covid.

Their research aimed to analyze patients after recovery of acute COVID-19 infection with lasting symptoms. The study included 17 patients that met WHO criteria for having long COVID. 

Researchers found that 59% of the patients in the study developed neuropathy. Most of the patients had a mild infection, and only 1 patient required hospitalization and ventilation. The patients were evaluated and followed for about 1 year on average.  Their medical histories and blood screening did not reveal any common neuropathy risk factors and brain and spine imaging did not reveal any potential causes for the development of the disorder. 

Neuropathy can be caused by many different disease processes that result in damage to the nerves. This results in tingling or sharp pains in the hands or feet as well as weakness and numbness.

Anne Louise Oaklander, an investigator in the Department of Neurology at MGH and lead author of the study said, “This is one of the early papers looking into causes of long COVID, which will steadily increase in importance as acute COVID wanes,” adding that the findings indicate, “Some long COVID patients had damage to their peripheral nerve fibers, and that damage to the small-fiber type of nerve cell may be prominent.” 

Researchers are still not able to identify the exact cause of long COVID, but this research brings them a step closer to understanding the disease process. Oaklander said “Research from our team and others is clarifying what the different types of post-COVID neuropathy are, and how best to diagnose and treat them. Most long COVID neuropathies described so far appear to reflect immune responses to the virus that went off course. And some patients seem to improve from standard treatments for other immune-related neuropathies.”

Current treatment for neuropathy depends on the cause, but most often doctors will prescribe pain relievers, anti-seizure or antidepressant medication, and topical treatments such as creams that help relieve symptoms. 

This is just one of many studies being conducted on long COVID with researchers trying to find both the cause and a cure, but there are still limited options for these “long haulers.” Christina Martin, a nurse practitioner who helps run Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center’s Post-Acute COVID Syndrome Clinic in New Hampshire relayed that patients are growing frustrated with the symptoms and are pushing for an answer.

Some experts suggest that prevention of COVID-19 is the key, recommending vaccination and subsequent booster shots to avoid infection. However, research has shown that the vaccines have questionable efficacy and poor durability. These studies are important in not only finding treatment options for patients, but in better understanding the disease process and who is most at risk to be affected.