A small study may shed some light on the mysterious illness known as long COVID. A growing number of people report suffering from debilitating symptoms weeks and months after they have recovered from COVID-19, with some people experiencing fatigue, muscle aches, shortness of breath, and cognitive difficulties.
Researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital and the National Institutes of Health may have found a link between long COVID and long-term nerve damage. They studied 17 individuals who had symptoms similar to a type of nerve damage known as peripheral neuropathy.
While none of the patients had nerve damage before they were diagnosed with COVID-19, the researchers found that 59% had damage to their small nerve fibers that regulate involuntary body functions, such as breathing.
“I think what’s going on here is that the nerves that control things like our breathing, blood vessels, and our digestion in some cases are damaged in these long COVID patients,” said Dr. Anne Louise Oaklander, a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and a lead author on the study published in Neurology: Neuroimmunology & Neuroinflammation, according to Reuters.
The researchers also treated the patients with steroids or intravenous immunoglobulin, which are commonly used to treat peripheral neuropathy. While several patients reported a slight improvement in their symptoms, the treatments did not cure them of long COVID.
Oaklander told NBC News that additional research needs to be done to learn more about long COVID and identify any possible treatments for the condition.
“To me, the next question is, how common is this? Is this a big deal that is a complete breakthrough, or is this going to end up affecting 1 percent of patients?” she said. “I cannot give you one answer either way.”