Why Researchers Suggest COVID Can Lead To Nerve Damage And Other Long-Haul Symptoms

Mild cases of COVID-19 usually last anywhere from two to six weeks, but Healthine reports that long-haul COVID effects can last as long as three months. While some of the symptoms of mild and long COVID overlap, other complications can arise from long-haul symptoms. One symptom, in particular, is nerve damage, or peripheral neuropathy, which is damage to nerves outside the spinal cord and brain, according to Mayo Clinic. This condition then leads to other problems, including muscle weakness, fatigue, pain in the hands and feet, and loss of taste and smell.

A new 2022 study published in the journal Neurology Neuroimmunology & Neuroinflammation studied patients with long COVID and no prior neuropathy risk. They confirmed that 59% of patients had developed peripheral neuropathy. The research group was small — only consisting of 17 patients — but it helped researchers glean information on what's happening as COVID symptoms linger in the body for an extended amount of time.

The body's immune system triggers a response

Researchers of the study discovered that nerve damage appeared to be the result of the body's immune system reacting to the virus. Dr. Anne Louise Oaklander, director of the Nerve Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital, told U.S. News & World Report that the findings make sense "because the symptoms of small fiber neuropathy overlap considerably with those of long-haul COVID." She explained that immune cells are like "Pac-Men" that chew on nerve cells, causing them to deteriorate and break down. 

Oaklander suggested that patients diagnosed with long-haul COVID should be tested for nerve damage. The good news is that this damage can be treated with drugs like steroids, and nerves can grow back over time. In fact, about two-thirds of the patients in the study responded well to this form of treatment, according to U.S. News & World Report. The study also acknowledged that more research is needed to uncover just how many long-haul COVID cases are caused by nerve damage.