This is Joe Keenan, author of Covid Long Haulers. In this edition of my blog, I would like to discuss some of the concerning research that has been published recently that links post Covid syndrome to potential mental health and neurological issues post infection.
In a recent publication from HealthDay News, they reported that about a third of COVID 19 patients go on to develop “long-haul” neurological or psychiatric conditions months after being infected and that there is a link between COVID and a higher risk for mental health and neurological disorders. The new study was led by Paul Harrison of the University of Oxford in England. The study involved data gathered from more than 236,000 COVID 19 survivors. More specifically, the study found that about a third of patients did go on to experience some kind of neurological or mental health issue within six months of their coronavirus infection. Anxiety (17%), mood disorders (14%), substance abuse disorders (7%) and insomnia (5%) were the most commonly diagnosed disorders. Neurological problems were much lower, including 0.6% for brain hemorrhage, 2.1% for ischemic stroke, and 0.7% for dementia. Neurological conditions were more common in patients who had been admitted to intensive care, 7% had a stroke and almost 2% were diagnosed with dementia.
The findings of this study are concerning to those of us that are recovering from Covid. The mental health and neurological disorders highlighted in the study can de debilitating and potentially life altering. This is the darker side of Covid recovery that science is just now starting to identify.
What about brain fog? For many of us, who are recovering from the lasting effects of COVID we have reported feeling not like ourselves, and experiencing short-term memory loss, confusion, an inability to concentrate, and just feeling differently than we did before contracting the infection. This is commonly described as brain fog. So how does science classify this very common post Covid brain symptom?
At this point, it seems that as indicated in the study noted above in this blog, a third of patients recovering from Covid will have some type of neurological illness. Neurological illness can include a spectrum of issues which includes memory issues, seizures, strokes and brain fog. So for the purposes of definition, brain fog is considered a neurological illness. Because brain fog is not as debilitating as some other neurological disorders the exact number of those suffering from this condition post covid infection is unknown. The data available for post Covid brain fog is limited and so to date there are no significant studies in this area.
Why is Covid affecting the bodies neurological system?
Preliminary data shows that COVID 19 is neuro-invasive, meaning the virus itself can invade the brain and nearby nerves. This can lead to something as simple as loss of smell, which indicates a neuro invasion because the nerves that are responsible for smell are in direct connection with brain. In my own case, I did loose my sense of taste and smell for about a month. It slowly returned but now certain smells are particularly difficult to stomach. Additionally, I lost the feeling in my left leg and foot. And after four months, the feeling has returned but not completely. My doctor believes this loss of sensation is being created by an inflammation in my lower spine created by the virus.
Post COVID syndrome is still being studied, and so more answers and cures will evolve over time. What the studies to date do tell us is that a third of people will have complete recovery with no issues. Roughly another third will have lingering effects that improve after therapy and time, and then another third may have permanent effects, especially in cases where the patient has been intubated. In most cases people should improve within 3 to 6 months after recovering from the infection. If they don’t recover within 6 to 12 months, it’s likely that they’ll be dealing with this for life.
How can I treat these neurological issues?
In a previous blog, I stated very clearly that everyone who is suffering from post Covid syndrome needs to advocate for themselves when it comes to treatments. Do not wait for the medical system to recognize that you are suffering, you need to actively engage and own your own treatment plan. I am not a doctor or a medically trained person, but with research, time and tenacity I have worked very hard to develop a network of doctors and therapists that can help me with my symptoms. I encourage you to do the same. I also encourage anyone sufferings from post Covid to seek out medical advice.
For me, the first step forward in the treatment of my post Covid neurological symptoms (brain fog, balance and leg numbness) was to accept that it is real. Like anyone else, I didn’t want to be sick and so my first instinct was to try and push through and see if I could force my body back to a normal pre-Covid state. Unfortunately this strategy did not work and my body couldn’t comply. Pushing myself only created frustration, exhaustion and soreness. My next step forward, was to be able to clearly articulate what I was feeling to the medical professionals. Getting this right can actually take time off of the diagnosis and put you into a fast lane for treatment. Next, I had to listen to my body. I needed to sleep when I was tired and ensure that I was not pushing myself to hard. This meant that I had to plan for sleep during the day to supplement when required. I began to exercise in March, three months after my Covid infection to get my body moving again. I started with a meager 2000 steps a day, a few times a week and have grown this over the last few months to 7000 steps. The key lesson in the return to exercise was to not race back and hope to achieve your pre-Covid targets. Lastly, I started going to physical therapy to get professional help to get my muscles and joints back active again. I attend the physical therapy facility at Littleton Hospital where the wonderful team there puts me through cardio, balance and strength therapy to get me up and going. I supplement the above with medicine from my doctors.
My neurological improvement journey sometimes feels like progress, and on other days I feel like I have taken a step back. I started my physical and neurological journey to recovery in earnest in March. Since then, I have made strides to improve and get back on track. Even with the set backs, the progress is encouraging. I attribute my progress to my desire to return back to normal, my research and finding the best medical professionals and therapists to help me on my journey.
I wish you all the best and the quickest return to health and happiness.