Since the onset of the pandemic caused by SARS-CoV-2 or COVID-19, millions of individuals across the world have experienced lasting medical symptoms after recovering from their infection. Called “long COVID,” this condition can take two forms: long COVID disease and long COVID syndrome.
The current criteria for long COVID include:
- Symptoms that persist for more than three months
- Chronic fatigue
- Widespread musculoskeletal pains
- Labored breathing
- Sleep issues
- Cognitive and mood disturbances
- Cannot be explained by another medical condition
Long COVID disease differs from long COVID syndrome because it typically affects older individuals who have comorbidities, requires hospitalization, and experience organ damage. Long COVID disease usually depends on the severity of the initial infection.
People experiencing long COVID syndrome may have only had a mild initial infection or even have been asymptomatic. Younger women make up a large portion of the population dealing with long COVID syndrome.
The symptoms of long COVID syndrome show significant similarities with those of other “invisible” illnesses like fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). All those conditions show no biomarkers or organ damage.
Overlapping characteristics across long COVID syndrome, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue syndrome include:
- Core symptoms include pain, exhaustion, poor sleep, cognitive concerns, and sleep disturbances
- Diagnosed after excluding other health conditions with similar symptoms
- Interfere with daily activities and quality of life
- Lack of organ damage
- Last at least three to six months
- More common in women between 30 and 50 years of age
- Possibility to turn into a chronic illness
Although long COVID syndrome research is still in its early stages, it has developed in specific ways that could benefit other “invisible” medical conditions like fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, and other neuroimmune issues.
Increase in Patient-Centered Research
In recent decades, clinical research has placed greater focus on patient experience, including for medical conditions that do not have clear diagnostic markers for symptoms. Patients’ in-depth descriptions of their experiences and symptoms of conditions like fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome. This direct account of how the condition affects someone’s quality of life can help doctors evaluate the type and severity of the issue and design an appropriate care plan to treat it.
The emergence of long COVID during the pandemic has placed the patients at the forefront of the research. Patients even named the condition itself as they started sharing their experiences with it. From interaction on social media that established there was a growing pool of individuals dealing with the condition to detailed self-reporting on COVID and other health apps has directly affected clinical research and helped providers fine-tune available tools for patients to report their symptoms and how they may change over time. Medical teams could adjust their research inquiry according to what patients shared and could receive real-time feedback, which shed light on how much difference patient-focused research can make.
New Opportunities to Study “Invisible” Illnesses
One of the greatest challenges for “invisible” illnesses such as long COVID syndrome is the lack of objective diagnostic protocols or biomarkers. This can also lead some medical providers and other professionals to consider that long COVID syndrome or CFS are not “real” diseases compared to conditions that have clear assessment methods. In turn, this affects how to study and treat those illnesses.
Long COVID syndrome happens after a verifiable COVID-19 infection and can lead to specific studies. This is a significant difference from fibromyalgia, CFS, and other “invisible” illnesses that are not linked to specific infections. Long COVID syndrome can help address and research specific symptoms that overlap with other conditions even though they do not have the same origins. Opportunities to assess symptoms that interfere with people’s quality of life and overall health can help shed light on fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome for greater understanding and possible new treatments.
Neuroimmune Mechanisms Versus Autoimmune Disorders
Long COVID syndrome brings up the difference between neuroimmune and autoimmune conditions. Although long COVID disease shares symptoms with autoimmune disorders like lupus or multiple sclerosis due to the presence of organ damage, long COVID syndrome does not fit in this medical category.
The chronic and centralized pain present in fibromyalgia, CFS, and long COVID syndrome point toward neuroimmune mechanism issues. Neuroimmune mechanisms affect the brain and the nervous system and can lead to chronic pain even when doctors cannot establish any external root.
Brain imaging research has previously helped map functional and structural changes in individuals with other “invisible” illnesses, including mood disorders like depression. Long COVID syndrome has created new opportunities for further studies on neuroimmune mechanisms, including through brain imaging analysis.
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