Frustrated by the lack of results from Western medicine, some long-term Covid patients have turned to Eastern alternatives. Many say that acupuncture, in particular, has provided 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 migraines, brain fog, fatigue, seizures, diarrhea and other persistent symptoms.
Eventually her physical limitations—and the 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 she started acupuncture in May 2022, Nichols said, “I could see the clouds starting to part.
“Instead of having migraines about four to six times a day at my worst, I was having migraines about twice a day. And eventually, once a day,” he said. Now, Nichols said, migraines and most other symptoms have resolved on their own, thanks to a combination of alternative treatments.
As of February, about 11% of US adults who had ever had Covid had long-term Covid, according to data from a household survey conducted by the Census Bureau. Long-term Covid is generally defined as the onset of symptoms lasting at least three months after being infected with the coronavirus.
There is no standard treatment, so doctors often prescribe drugs based on a person’s symptoms. Some chronic Covid patients take steroids, while others use antiviral drugs or drugs designed to treat seizures, high blood pressure or muscle weakness.
Doctors readily admit that it is a process of trial and error, and not all patients find relief.
“There was an unfortunate pattern [long Covid] patients go to doctors and don’t feel like they’re getting what they need, or feel like they’re trying all these drugs and they’re not getting the results they want,” said Dr. Meenakshi “Cosmos” Kumar, a family medicine specialist at Beth Israel Lahey Health Primary Care — The Marino Center for Integrated Health.
Kumar, who treats Nichols, said they often recommend acupuncture to long-term Covid patients, even though there is no clinical data to support that use.
However, some research is ongoing. A clinical study in the UK is giving people with long-term Covid weekly 15-minute acupuncture treatments for six weeks and people in the control group ‘semi-structured’ telephone consultations with a clinician.
Dr. Imogen Locke, a clinical oncologist at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London, is leading the study and said she doesn’t expect full results until 2025. But anecdotally, Locke said, participants who have received acupuncture so far “seem to be responding.”
“Obviously, we have to wait and see when the data is unlocked,” he said.
Studying the effects of acupuncture is challenging
Elizabeth Joyce, a therapeutic radiographer at the Royal Marsden Hospital, said she joined Locke’s trial after almost two years of prolonged Covid.
“I just had this terrible muscle fatigue, like I’d run like four marathons in one day,” she said.
After 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 is almost resolved, she said.
Locke noted, however, that studies like hers come with challenges. Although some research has found that acupuncture could help reduce chronic pain, fatigue or inflammation, the placebo subjects 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, because of the difficulties and methodological challenges of doing acupuncture studies,” Locke said.
Some doctors worry that overall, the lack of long-term treatments for Covid leaves patients vulnerable to predatory providers.
“Many people prey on their desperation by offering them strategies that haven’t really been fully tested and 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 benefiting because of a placebo effect. But honestly, at this stage, if it makes them feel better, it still makes them feel better,” he said.
Occasionally, however, there can be harmful side effects to alternative therapies, according to Michelle Haddad, who directs 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 cannot be harmful to me,” and it can. It is very important that people inform their providers,” he said.
Many Covid patients swear by acupuncture
Rachel Villalobos, who lives in Seaside, California, decided to try acupuncture last fall after experiencing high blood pressure, headaches, dizziness, chest pain, palpitations and dark spots in her vision — the results of a Covid infection in January. 2022.
Villalobos gave birth to her daughter while testing positive for Covid, then went to the emergency room several months later after passing out at a friend’s barbecue. A doctor eventually diagnosed her with 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 walk up our stairs in our house because I would just fall. For a while I couldn’t hold my head up.”
Villalobos said she took blood pressure medication, a steroid, over-the-counter pain relievers and Benadryl.
But with acupuncture, she said, “everything seemed to calm down.” Her heart has stopped beating, she said.
Christine Kaiser, the clinical chief of acupuncture and quality at Connor Whole Health University Hospitals in Ohio, estimated that at least 75% of her long-term Covid patients had responded well to acupuncture, even though many were hesitant to try it.
“They’re frustrated and I think maybe they’re a little skeptical — like, they’ve tried so many things, what’s this going to do? But they are willing to try it,” he said.
Kaiser explained that many long-term symptoms of Covid were similar to those that acupuncture practitioners had experienced before the pandemic.
“Acupuncture reduces inflammation. It regulates that autonomic nervous system, helps increase blood flow, helps release neurochemicals in the brain,” he said.
Combination of approaches
Chronic Covid patients usually receive acupuncture in combination with other interventions such as medication or supplements.
Villalobos takes, among other things, ashwagandha, an herb used in traditional Indian medicine. Nichols is undergoing intravenous ozone and ultraviolet blood therapy and also receives naltrexone, a drug used to treat opioid use disorder. Early research suggests it may help moderate an overactive immune response.
Alisa Bolling, a retired nurse in Parkland, Florida, said that after going from doctor to doctor in search of long-term treatments for Covid, she now relies on meditation, acupuncture and a supplement containing boswellia, an herbal extract used in traditional Chinese, in Middle Eastern and Indian medicine.
“It sounds crazy, but it works,” Bolling said. “As a nurse, especially, I exhausted every avenue.”
Kumar said that depending on the patient, a mixture of adaptogenic herbs or turmeric may be recommended. But Eastern medicine can be expensive and often not covered by insurance, which can hinder access. Kumar said most of Beth Israel Lahey Health’s long-term Covid patients were white women.
Specialist visits and prescription drugs can also be expensive.
Nichols estimated she spent $30,000 to $40,000 out of pocket before trying acupuncture.
“I would rather have spent that money on them [alternative] treatments because they are actually more therapeutic and more supportive for me,” she said. “Western treatments were nothing short of a waste of money.”