What is Long Haul COVID?
Long-COVID, or COVID long haulers, refers to people who are experiencing chronic symptoms following an infection with COVID-19. These are often symptoms that were not present prior to infection with the COVID-19 virus. I have seen this syndrome as an increasingly prevalent issue in my clinic. Research from September 2021 even shows that over 1 in 3 people have suffered from long-COVID symptoms after their initial infection.
For many people this is especially troubling because these symptoms can range in a pretty big variety and in some cases can affect multiple organs.
What are the symptoms of Long-COVID?
COVID long haulers can report a broad range of symptoms affecting a variety of organ systems including the nervous system, cardiovascular system, respiratory system, etc.
Some of the most common symptoms I see in my clinic include shortness of breath (dyspnea), tiredness or fatigue, palpitations and/or heart irregularities, chest pain, brain fog, insomnia, and mood changes. Typically, these symptoms are made worse with exertion (both physical and mental exertion) and in most cases these symptoms have impaired patients' ability to work, exercise, or maintain their normal daily activities.
A variety of other symptoms are often reported as well including: cough, stomach pain, headache, muscle or joint pains, nerve-like sensations (pins and needles feeling), diarrhea, intermittent fever, dizziness, rashes, changes in taste or smell, and menstrual irregularities.
An observation I have made is that most people go through an initial period of infection which includes typical symptoms such as fever, body aches, malaise, headache, cough, and maybe changes to taste and smell. As these initial symptoms clear, many patients report a period of depression following initial infection. This has been reported as both mild or severe depression.
As these patients progress, I find that breathing difficulties and chest discomfort often remain. This tends to promote anxiety, depression, and troubles sleeping. Heart-related symptoms often begin to present at this stage as well.
In some cases, my patients have reported relatively severe neurological troubles characterized by decreased cognitive abilities, trouble focusing, and difficulties with memory.
Some of the more severe issues that are known to occur with COVID-19 infection include blood clotting issues, which may lead to life-threatening issues like stroke of heart attack (myocardial infarction), and inflammation and damage to the heart muscle (myocarditis).
How does Chinese Medicine help with Long-COVID?
While each COVID "long hauler" tends to have a somewhat unique presentation of symptoms, clinically I have found some commonalities that have helped me to treat many long-COVID patients with excellent results.
First and foremost, there is almost always a degree of customization when it comes to not just long-COVID but to patient care in general. Having said that, there are some mechanisms that I have used repeatedly which have consistently given my patients positive results.
Lung issues are basically a hallmark of both COVID and Long-COVID. Research in the UK is even showing lung abnormalities, for months following infection.
Not all my patients will directly complain of lung-related symptoms (cough, shortness of breath, etc.), but I have found that addressing lingering inflammation and phlegm/mucus in the lungs almost always provides significant changes to energy levels, mood, and brain fog. I often find that this approach also tends to help those suffering from loss of taste (ageusia) and smell (anosmia) or those who have developed a distorted sense of smell (parosmia). Clinically, this involves using a base herbal formula that decreases inflammation in the lungs, eliminates excessive phlegm/mucus, and promotes bronchodilation to improve breathing.
The Heart/Cardiovascular System:
Many of my patients have developed palpitations, heart irregularities, or chest pains since their COVID-19 infection. These are often extremely troubling symptoms and have caused many to seek emergency medical care thinking they are having a heart attack (myocardial infarction). Other symptoms often accompany these heart-related issues, though these are not always reported with other sources. These symptoms include: anxiety, potential panic or panic attacks, fatigue, and insomnia.
I have found that using medicinals which decrease inflammation and improve circulation often creates profound effects on these symptoms and patients frequently report decreased pain, better sleep, improved energy, and better mental wellbeing. To accomplish this, I will usually add one or several herbs to the lung formula (mentioned above) which have been shown to vasodilate blood vessels in the heart and chest and which help to relieve pain and anxiety.
Digestive complaints are very apparent in some long haulers, but in others, they seem a bit less obvious. Some patients will report nausea, increased gas, food sensitivities, or changes to their normal bowel behaviors. However, in some patients, acid reflux causes quite a bit of issue. In some cases, acid reflux isn't even known to be an issue (this is called silent reflux). This may appear like chronic sore throat, post nasal drip, hoarse voice, or even tightness in the neck. This silent reflux may also cause chest pain, similar to the heart-related issues mentioned above. This appears to be fairly common in long haulers.
Clinically, I've developed a few approaches to address these digestive problems. One of my primary approaches it to simply use a digestive herbal formula (such as Microgard) to harmonize digestion, remove undigested food, and regulate bowel movements. When acid reflux is more pronounced, I will add herbs to the overall formula to eliminate reflux, remove inflammation, and relieve symptoms caused by the reflux.
As mentioned above, mood changes (depression, anxiety, irritability, etc.) are commonly found in long-COVID patients (and also in most chronic disease problems). Most often, the aforementioned approaches will provide significant relief for many of these mood issues, however, in some cases, additional attention is needed in order to properly give relief from these mental/emotional changes.
The most common way of addressing mood disorders in Chinese medicine is with a combination of herbs which not only address the mood, but which also aid in regulating the digestive system. This is IMPORTANT!!! Our digestive system is responsible for producing a majority of the neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine, GABA, etc.) our brain uses for proper cognitive function. So while it is nice to use herbs which stabilize mood and relieve depression and anxiety, it is fundamentally important to support the system (digestive) which is responsible for keeping our mood/brain in good working condition.
For my patients who experience menstrual troubles following COVID infection, my approach is generally quite simple and effective. Many of the same treatment approaches I use for regulating the mood and digestive system are also used for regulating the menstrual cycle. Many of these formulas have actually had hundreds of years of use for treating menstrual irregularities. Often with this type of approach, the menstrual cycle can be regulated within 3 months.
If you or someone you know is suffering from long-COVID, I may be able to help. Please contact me here.