Frustrated by the lack of results from Western medicine, some long-standing Covid patients have turned to Eastern alternatives. Many say that acupuncture, in particular, has brought relief.
Lauren Nichols, a Massachusetts resident who contracted Covid in March 2020, estimated that over two years she had tried about 30 different pharmaceuticals to relieve her migraines, brain fog, fatigue, seizures, diarrhea and other long-lasting symptoms.
Eventually, her physical limitations, and lack of answers, became so overwhelming that she developed suicidal thoughts.
“I was very close to not being in this world,” he said.
But about three months after the acupuncture began in May 2022, Nichols said: “I could see the clouds starting to part.
“Instead of having migraines four to six times a day at his worst, I was having migraines about twice a day. And then eventually once a day,” he said. Now, Nichols said, the migraines and most other symptoms have resolved on their own, thanks to a combination of alternative therapies.
As of February, about 11% of US adults who had ever had covid were experiencing long-term covid, according to data from a household survey conducted by the Census Bureau. Long Covid is generally defined as having symptoms that last at least three months after a coronavirus infection.
There is no standard treatment, so doctors often prescribe medication based on a person’s symptoms. Some long-term Covid patients take steroids, while others use antiviral drugs or drugs designed to treat seizures, high blood pressure or muscle weakness.
Doctors readily recognize that it is a trial and error process, and that not all patients find relief.
“There has been an unfortunate pattern of [long Covid] patients who go to the doctor and don’t feel like they’re getting what they need, or feel like they’re trying all these medications and not getting the result they want,” said Meenakshi “Cosmos” Kumar, MD, a family medicine specialist at Beth Israel Lahey Health Primary Care—The Marino Center for Integrated Health.
Kumar, who treats Nichols, said they often suggest acupuncture to Covid patients for a long time, though there is no clinical data to support that particular use.
However, some investigations are clandestine. TO clinical study in the uk it is giving people with long-term covid weekly 15-minute acupuncture treatments for six weeks, and those in a control group “semi-structured” phone consultations with a doctor.
dr. Imogen Locke, a clinical oncologist at London’s Royal Marsden Hospital, is leading the study and said she doesn’t expect full results until 2025. But anecdotally, Locke said, participants who received acupuncture so far “seem to be responding.”
“Obviously, we have to wait for the data to be unlocked,” he said.
Studying the effects of acupuncture is challenging
Elizabeth Joyce, a therapeutic radiographer at the Royal Marsden Hospital, said she entered Locke’s trial after almost two years of long covid.
“I had horrible muscle fatigue, like I’d run four marathons in one day,” he said.
After receiving three weeks of acupuncture during the trial, Joyce said she felt energized enough to go for a run. She continued acupuncture on her own after the trial, and her muscle fatigue nearly resolved, she said.
Locke noted, however, that studies like hers come with challenges. Although some research has found that acupuncture might help reduce chronic pain, fatigue either inflammationpeople who receive a placebo in such studies know that the needles do not pierce their skin.
“Is there a good, strong evidence base for acupuncture? The answer is probably no, due to the difficulties and methodological challenges of doing acupuncture studies,” Locke said.
Some doctors worry that a lack of long-term Covid treatments generally leaves patients vulnerable to predatory providers.
“Many people are taking advantage of their desperation by offering them strategies that haven’t really been fully tested and that, in some cases, can be dangerous and expensive,” said Dr. Harlan Krumholz, a cardiologist and scientist at Yale University.
Krumholz said it’s not clear why some patients seem to respond to Eastern therapies.
“They may be getting benefits because of a placebo effect. But honestly, at this stage, if it makes them feel better, it still makes them feel better,” he said.
However, occasionally, alternative therapies can have harmful side effects, according to Michelle Haddad, who runs a post-Covid neuropsychology clinic at Emory Rehabilitation Hospital.
“A lot of times people think, ‘Oh, it’s herbs,’ or ‘Oh, it’s a nutrient. It can’t be harmful to me, and it can. It is very important that people keep their providers informed,” she said.
Many long Covid patients rely on acupuncture
Rachel Villalobos, who lives in Seaside, California, decided to try acupuncture last fall after dealing with high blood pressure, headaches, dizziness, chest pain, rapid heartbeat, and dark spots in vision, the effects of a yeast infection. covid in January 2022.
Villalobos gave birth to her daughter while testing positive for Covid, then went to the emergency room several months after passing out at a friend’s barbecue. Ultimately, a doctor diagnosed her with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, or POTS, a nervous system disorder that makes it difficult to stay upright.
“I would just pass out,” Villalobos said. “I couldn’t stand up, I couldn’t go up the steps of our house because I would fall. For a while, I couldn’t even hold my head up.”
Villalobos said he took blood pressure medication, a steroid, over-the-counter pain relievers and Benadryl.
But with acupuncture, he said, “everything seemed to calm down.” Her heart palpitations have stopped, she said.
Christine Kaiser, a clinical acupuncture and quality manager at Connor Whole Health University Hospitals in Ohio, estimated that at least 75% of her long-standing Covid patients had responded well to acupuncture, though many were hesitant to try it.
“They’re frustrated and I think maybe a little bit skeptical, like, they’ve tried so many things, what’s this going to do? But they are willing to try it,” she said.
Kaiser explained that many prolonged symptoms of covid were similar to what doctors had treated with acupuncture before the pandemic.
“Acupuncture reduces inflammation. It regulates that autonomic nervous system, helps increase blood flow, helps release neurochemicals in the brain,” he said.
A combination of approaches
Patients with prolonged Covid usually perform acupuncture in conjunction with other interventions, such as medications or supplements.
Villalobos takes, among other things, ashwagandha, a herb used in traditional indian medicine. Nichols is undergoing intravenous ozone therapy and ultraviolet blood irradiation, and is also taking naltrexone, a medication used to treat opioid use disorder. Early research suggests it can help moderate an overactive immune response.
Alisa Bolling, a retired nurse from Parkland, Florida, said that after going from doctor to doctor looking for lengthy treatments for covid, she now relies on meditation, acupuncture and a supplement containing boswellia, an herbal extract used in traditional Chinese, Middle Eastern, and Indian medicine.
“It sounds crazy, but it works,” Bolling said. “As a nurse, especially, I exhausted all avenues.”
Kumar said that depending on the patient, an adaptogenic herbal blend or turmeric might be recommended. But Eastern medicine can be expensive and is often not covered by insurance, which can make it difficult to access. Kumar said most of Beth Israel Lahey Health’s Covid patients were white women.
Visits to specialists and prescription drugs can also be expensive.
Nichols estimated that he spent between $30,000 and $40,000 out of pocket before trying acupuncture.
“I would rather have spent that money on these [alternative] treatments because they are actually more healing and more supportive for me,” he said. “Western treatments have been nothing short of a waste of money.”