Literature Review

Neurologists brace and prepare for long-COVID fallout


“If there’s one universal truth amongst all the patients I’ve interviewed, it’s that they’re often brushed aside, pigeonholed, or, frankly, abandoned,” said Greg Vanichkachorn, MD, MPH, a family physician and founder of Mayo Clinic’s COVID-19 Activity Rehabilitation Program (CARP).

Take a nap. Tough it out. Push through it. Dr. Vanichkachorn describes the frustration voiced by thousands of patients whose lives continue to be disrupted and thrown into upheaval.

Brain fog. Cognitive dysfunction. Headaches. These are just a few of the manifestations of what the National Institutes of Health has termed post-acute sequelae of SARS COVID-2 (PASC), more commonly known as long-COVID.

PASC is loosely defined as symptoms and/or sequelae that persist for several weeks to months after the initial infection has cleared. Data that have accumulated since the COVID-19 outbreak suggest that at least 1 in 3 people who are initially infected may be long-haulers.

A total of 33.6% (95% confidence interval, 11.17-34.07) of patients with COVID-19 experience neurologic sequelae in the first 6 months following resolution of the infection. Almost half of cases (12.8%; 95% CI, 12.36-13.33) represented first-time diagnoses.

“Anecdotally, the longer we go into this, and the more people that, in the past, have been infected with COVID-19, the more patients will be seeing neurologists with some of these complaints,” said Ralph Sacco, MD, professor and Olemberg chair of neurology at University of Miami, and past president of the American Academy of Neurology.

Neurologic detritus

Further complicating the epidemiologic picture is the broad array of clinical and functional symptoms. “What we call long-haul COVID is not a single entity,” explained Michel Toledano, MD, a neurology consultant and a member of the CARP team at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Patients present with persistent or emergent polysymptomatic and multisystemic diseases that often include neurologic symptoms, he said. In many circumstances, they had an acute infection with either very mild symptoms or no symptoms at all.

“There’s no doubt that these people are experiencing significant neurologic symptoms, but it remains unclear whether the driving factor is mainly systemic or the nervous system independently of what is happening in the body,” he said.

Like patients with SARS-CoV-1 and Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (MERS), patients recovering from confirmed or suspected SARS-CoV-2 infections experience a variety of self-reported neurologic symptoms that vary in terms of time frame, duration, and severity.

Take Jacqueline Jolly, for example, a 50-year-old single mother and construction permit contractor living outside of Tampa, Florida. She was diagnosed with COVID-19 in January 2021. Jolly explained that she was never sick enough to be admitted to the hospital and yet is still not close to full recovery. Lingering, debilitating symptoms include executive function challenges, anosmia, headaches, and paresthesia that frequently bring her to the edge of losing consciousness. She has not returned to work, despite multiple attempts.

Vicky Nunally, a 35-year-old single mother and medical office assistant who lives in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia, recounted that she landed in the intensive care unit with a severe SARS-CoV-2 infection. Roughly 6 months later, she continues to experience debilitating headaches, brain fog, and cognitive delays. Her endometriosis has flared up. She says that she is depressed, anxious, and has returned to therapy. “It makes you feel crazy,” she said.


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