Complications of COVID-19 Recovery

Three types of chronic pain that can develop and how we can intervene.

Posted Aug 26, 2020

COVID-19 Pain
Source: Shutterstock/fizkes

It is clear now that contracting COVID-19 is not simply a “die or recover” scenario. In fact, a recent study has shown that upwards of 70% of patients continue to have significant health problems months after a positive test. For patients who have experienced symptoms, the list can be long, varied, and severe—trouble breathing, fever, loss of smell and taste, extreme exhaustion, as well as joint, chest, and muscle pain.

Three types of chronic pain that can develop

As reported in the medical journal Pain, there are primarily three groups of chronic pain that patients fall in relation to COVID-19. The first and most serious of the three experiences chronic pain connected to sobering diagnoses like lung damage, and inflammation of the heart and brain. This type of organ damage is thought to be chronic, along with the resulting pain.

The second type of COVID-associated chronic pain is comprised of a group already suffering with chronic pain. This group of patients is particularly vulnerable to exacerbations brought on by an illness as severe as COVID-19. Of the 50 million people that the CDC estimates live with chronic pain currently, dealing with the physical symptoms of a COVID-19 infection can cause their pain to not only increase, but spread to additional areas of the body.

The third type of chronic pain brought on by COVID-19 is more insidious. This group of patients may or may not have even been infected by the virus itself. Yet, the stress of a global pandemic—how it personally affects the day-to-day life and livelihoods of people, to its more existential threat to society—is ever-present. The anxiety resulting from economic wipeouts to political discourse is certainly felt by all, to varying degrees.

Living in such a state of heightened stress creates the perfect physical conditions for chronic pain to develop. And as such, in the third group, chronic pain arises as a direct result of this constant distress. Ever-present muscle tension, constant vigilance, inadequate sleep, and restricted activity leads to inflammation, which in turn can trigger a pain response. The very weight of this pandemic can be felt in the body; as such, patients report lingering symptoms ranging from headaches, muscle and joint pain, debilitating fatigue, low back and shoulder pain, and migraines.

What history teaches us

We know from other viral outbreaks—like the 2003 SARS outbreak—that these are groups of patients we should be watching out for. For those affected by SARS, the mental health crash alone manifested itself as increased rates of depression, suicide risk, and PTSD. In fact, 1/4 to 1/2 of SARS patients report ongoing battles with PTSD. The repercussions were felt in the medical community as well—due to the intensity and relentless pace of working in pandemic conditions, 40% of healthcare workers experienced PTSD as well.

Looking forward

When it comes to chronic pain, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. In other words, gaining the proactive support of leaders—both governmental and healthcare professionals—is key. Educators who understand exactly how one’s nervous system preempts a sensitive system to developing chronic pain need to be employed. Raising awareness will lead those that suffer with chronic pain—both before and after COVID-19—towards the tools they need for pain management, social support systems, and strong treatment modalities that work. The time to act is now.