COVID-19 is an infection of the respiratory tract but its effects on the body are not confined to the respiratory system and much more widespread. Studies have suggested that even mild symptoms of COVID-19 can cause severe damage to the lungs, heart and even the brain.
Understanding how the SARS-CoV-2 virus affects the brain and the nervous system — and how to treat patients in order to minimise this damage — is vital because studies show that the COVID-19 infection can not only lead to neurological problems in a large number of people but may also be associated with mental health issues like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Neurological symptoms in COVID-19 patients
A new study published in the Annals of Clinical and Translational Neurology suggests that most people hospitalised due to COVID-19 infection have neurological manifestations of the disease. The study included 509 consecutive patients admitted within a hospital network in Chicago with confirmed COVID-19 infection. The study compared the severity of COVID-19 infection and its outcomes in patients with or without neurological symptoms while also identifying the predictors of neurological issues.
They found that 42.2 percent of the patients had neurological symptoms at the time of COVID-19 onset. By the time the patients were hospitalised, 62.7 percent of them had neurological manifestations. A total of 82.3 percent (419 out of the 509 participants) patients had neurological symptoms during the entire duration of the disease. The study also narrowed down the most frequent neurological issues these patients suffered, which included myalgias (44.8%), headaches (37.7 percent), encephalopathy (31.8 percent) which is brain damage or disease that alters the brain’s structure or function, dizziness (29.7 percent), dysgeusia or loss of taste (15.9 percent) and anosmia or loss of smell (11.4 percent). Neurological problems like strokes, movement disorders, motor and sensory deficits, ataxia and seizures were uncommon and occurred in only 0.2-1.4 percent of the patients.
It was also seen that younger patients and those with severe COVID-19 had more neurological issues and encephalopathy was independently associated with worse outcomes among patients. This further confirms that being younger does not guarantee that you’ll have less severe neurological problems.
COVID-19 brain fog and PTSD
Another study, recently published in The Clinical Neuropsychologist, indicates that if you continue to experience brain fog or other neurological symptoms of COVID-19 infection even after recovery, it might be because you have PTSD. The study suggests that the neurological manifestations of COVID-19 indicate that neurovirulence (damage caused to the nervous system due to a virus) has occurred, which means that the brain and nervous system have suffered damage. This in turn suggests that the risks of neuropsychological deficits are quite high among those who have neurological symptoms of COVID-19.
These neuropsychological deficits show up in the form of continued symptoms like brain fog, memory loss, confusion and other types of cognitive impairments even after the patient has recovered and is no longer COVID-19 positive. These deficits are associated with trauma and brain injuries and usually show up in those with PTSD. The study argues that even though PTSD confirmation and data among COVID-19 patients is currently lacking, high rates of PTSD among SARS and MERS survivors indicates that the risk of PTSD in COVID-19 survivors should be taken more seriously. The researchers recommend that healthcare professionals evaluate recovering COVID-19 patients for PTSD risks and provide appropriate treatment.
For more information, read our article on Neurological symptoms of COVID-19.
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