New research out of Israel has just confirmed that the puzzling long-COVID phenomenon, which has caused so much fuss around the world, might be caused by damage to one of the most influential nerves in the human body.
For those among us who aren't familiar with the vagus nerve, it's the 10th cranial nerve, and the longest and most complex in that category. Still, repairing nerve damage will be essential since the nerve exerts control over the gastrointestinal tract, along with the face and chest.
New research is set to be presented at this year’s European Congress of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases investigates the connection between post-COVID syndrome, also known as long COVID, and the vagus nerve.
This 'pilot study' was authored by Dr. Gemma Lladós and Dr. Lourdes Mateu of the Germans Trias i Pujol University Hospital Badalona, Spain, and its findings will be presented at the congress, taking place between April 23-26 in Lisbon.
The study suggests that vagus nerve damage caused by SARS-CoV-2 dysfunction could be responsible for many of the symptoms of long COVID, including persistent voice problems, difficulty swallowing, dizziness, abnormally fast heart rate - aka tachycardia - low blood pressure and digestive issues.
Here's more on the study's findings from the Jerusalem Post:
Long COVID is a condition characterized by persistent and continuous health issues caused by COVID-19 after the patient has recovered from the initial infections. It can affect nearly every organ in the body, as well as cause a range of mental health and nervous system disorders. Some of the most common symptoms of long COVID include fatigue, headaches, shortness of breath, loss of smell and taste, and muscle weakness.
In order to further understand the phenomenon, the researchers used imaging and functional tests, as well as a morphological and functional evaluation of the vagus nerve, in an assessment of long COVID patients presenting one or more signs of VND.
Out of the 348 patients taking part in the study, two-thirds (228) had at least one symptom of VND among their long COVID symptoms. After the initial assessments were completed, further evaluations were conducted on a test group of 22 patients, all presenting VND symptoms.
Tachycardia and dizziness were two of the most commonly-reported symptoms of long COVID.
Of the 22 subjects analyzed, 20 were women with a median age of 44, and on average the symptoms had been present in the participants for 14 months.
The most frequent VND symptoms presented were diarrhea (73% of subjects), tachycardia (59%), and dizziness, difficulty swallowing, and voice problems (45% each). An additional 14% of patients suffered from low blood pressure.
All in all, 86% of the patients assessed had at least three different VND-related symptoms.
While the findings were revelatory, opening up a new avenue of research for scientists inside and outside Israel, the dynamics driving the vagus nerve damage remain a mystery.
As the exact cause of long COVID and the reason why symptoms present in such a varied way from patient to patient is not currently known, the study’s findings could impact and change the understanding and treatment of the condition significantly going forward.
"In this pilot evaluation, most long COVID subjects with vagus nerve dysfunction symptoms had a range of significant, clinically-relevant, structural and/or functional alterations in their vagus nerve, including nerve thickening, trouble swallowing, and symptoms of impaired breathing," summarized the study's authors.
"Our findings so far thus point at vagus nerve dysfunction as a central pathophysiological feature of long COVID."
But given the prevalence of long COVID this breakthrough will certainly be remembered as a relief for researchers and patients both.