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Some COVID-19 "long-haulers" develop nervous system disorders

Posted at 12:16 AM, Jan 07, 2021

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — David O'Brien was living a healthy lifestyle in New York City, working at a hollistic wellness center. The then 27-year-old moved back to West Seneca in April after he contracted COVID-19.

“From about March until July I had new symptoms popping up basically like weekly,” O'Brien said.

O'Brien said he knew something was wrong after he started having panic attacks several times a day. He had other symptoms like an elevated heart rate.

He was diagnosed with post-COVID-19 dysautonomia in August.

Dysautonomia is an umbrella term for the dysfunctioning of the automatic nervous system. One of the common disorders is POTS, which stands for postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome.

Dr. Svetlana Blitshteyn is the director of the Dysautonomia Clinic. She said POTS can often be caused by a viral infection like the flu, SARS, and now COVID-19.

“Every week I add more and more post-COVID dysautonomia patients,” Blitshteyn said.

POTS reduces blood volume. Blitshteyn said it can lead to abnormal heart rates, headaches, digestion problems, and severe fatigue. Some of her patients have had to stop working.

She said many of her post-COVID-19 dysautonomia patients are in their 20s-40s.

“Most of the patients that I see are young people who were healthy and who had mild COVID, some didn’t even have a fever, and they ended up with post COVID complications and lots of neurologic and cardiovascular symptoms,” Blitshteyn said.

Blitshteyn said if someone had COVID-19 months ago and still feels lingering symptoms and had trouble functioning they should see a doctor.

That could be difficult, however. Blitshteyn said dysautonomia is often misdiagnosed as anxiety, which is what happened to O'Brien before going to Blitshteyn.

“It was nothing short of a nightmare to get this all stabilized and diagnosed,” O'Brien said.

Blitshteyn said POTS is chronic, but can be manageable. Some patients reach near full recovery, while others struggle.

“It’s definitely impacted everyday life, it’s such a mixed bag of symptoms, everyday is kind of different,” O'Brien said.

Nine months in, Blitshteyn said it's too soon to know the full long-term impact of post-COVID-19 POTS, something she along with other doctors are studying.

“In my case series most people improved with treatment, and that’s very reassuring," she said. "However, also in my case series most patients had some kind of lingering symptoms.”

O'Brien still has some GI problems and uses beta blockers as needed to help his heart rate.

“As far as symptoms go for the long-haulers, I’m optimistic about it,” he said.

For more information on POTS and dysautonomia patients can visit Dysautonomia Internationaland Dr. Blitshteyn'sDysautonomia Clinicsites.