Frustrated by a lack of results from Western medicine, some long-time Covid patients have turned to Eastern alternatives. Many say that acupuncture in particular has brought relief.
Lauren Nichols, a Massachusetts resident who contracted Covid in March 2020, estimated that she had tried around 30 different medicines over two years to manage her migraines, brain fog, fatigue, seizures, diarrhea and other ongoing symptoms to alleviate.
Eventually, her physical limitations — and a lack of answers — became so overwhelming that she developed suicidal thoughts.
“I was very close to being out of this world,” she 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 worst, I had migraines about two times a day. And eventually once a day,” she said. Now, Nichols said, the migraines and most other symptoms have resolved on their own thanks to a combination of alternative therapies.
In February, about 11% of US adults who have ever had Covid had long-term Covid, according to data from a household survey conducted by the Census Bureau. Long Covid is broadly defined as symptoms that last at least three months after a coronavirus infection.
There is no standard treatment, so doctors often prescribe medication based on a person’s symptoms. Some long Covid patients take steroids while others use antiviral drugs or drugs to treat seizures, high blood pressure or muscle weakness.
Doctors readily acknowledge that it is a trial and error process and not all patients find relief.
“There has been an unfortunate pattern [long Covid] Patients who go to doctors and don’t feel like they’re getting what they need or feel like they’re trying all these drugs and it’s not getting the result they want,” said Dr. Meenakshi “Cosmos” Kumar, a GP specialist at Beth Israel Lahey Health Primary Care – the Marino Center for Integrated Health.
Kumar, who treats Nichols, said they often suggest acupuncture to patients with long Covid, even though there is no clinical data to support this particular use.
However, some investigations are ongoing. A clinical trial in the UK is giving people with long Covid 15-minute acupuncture treatments weekly for six weeks and those in a 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 to date “seem to be responding.”
“Of course we have to wait until the data is unlocked,” she said.
Studying the effects of acupuncture is challenging
Elizabeth Joyce, a therapeutic radiographer at the Royal Marsden Hospital, said she entered Locke’s trial after nearly two years of long Covid.
“I just had this horrible muscle fatigue, like I was running four marathons in one day,” she said.
After receiving acupuncture for three weeks during the study, Joyce said she felt energetic enough to go running. She continued the acupuncture on her own after the process, and her muscle fatigue is almost gone, she said.
However, Locke noted that studies like hers come with challenges. Although some research has found that acupuncture can help reduce chronic pain, fatigue, or inflammation, people who are given a placebo in such studies know that needles don’t pierce their skin.
“Is there a good, robust evidence base for acupuncture? The answer is probably no, because of the difficulties and methodological challenges of conducting acupuncture studies,” Locke said.
Some doctors fear the lack of long Covid treatments is leaving patients overall vulnerable to predatory providers.
“A lot of people take advantage of their desperation by offering them strategies that haven’t actually been fully tested and in some cases can be dangerous and expensive,” said Dr. Harlan Krumholz, cardiologist and scientist at Yale University.
Krumholz said it’s not clear why some patients seem to respond to Eastern therapies.
“They may benefit from a placebo effect. But honestly, at this stage, if it makes them feel better, they still feel better,” he said.
Occasionally, however, alternative therapies can have harmful side effects, according to Michelle Haddad, who runs a post-Covid neuropsychology clinic at Emory Rehabilitation Hospital.
“People often think, ‘Oh, those are herbs,’ or ‘Oh, that’s a nutrient. It can’t hurt me,’ and it can. It’s very important that people keep their providers updated,” she said.
Many long Covid patients swear by acupuncture
Rachel Villalobos, who lives in Seaside, California, decided to try acupuncture last fall after battling high blood pressure, headaches, dizziness, chest pain, heart palpitations and dark spots in her vision – the effects of contracting Covid in January 2022 .
Villalobos gave birth to their daughter while she tested positive for Covid, then went to the emergency room a few months later after she fainted at a friend’s barbecue. A doctor eventually diagnosed her with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, or POTS, a nervous system disorder that makes it difficult to stay upright.
“I would just pass out,” said Villalobos. “I couldn’t get up. I couldn’t go up our steps in our house or I would fall over. I couldn’t even hold my head up for a while.”
Villalobos said she was on blood pressure medication, a steroid, over-the-counter painkillers and Benadryl.
But with acupuncture, she said, “everything seems to kind of settle down.” Her palpitations have stopped, she said.
Christine Kaiser, the clinical manager for acupuncture and quality at University Hospitals Connor Whole Health in Ohio, estimated that at least 75% of her patients with long-term Covid-19 pandemics had responded well to acupuncture, although many were reluctant to try it.
“They’re frustrated and I think maybe a little skeptical – they’ve tried so many things, what’s going to happen? But they are willing to try,” she said.
Kaiser explained that many long-standing Covid symptoms were similar to those practitioners had treated with acupuncture before the pandemic.
“Acupuncture reduces inflammation. It regulates this autonomic nervous system, helps increase blood flow, helps release neurochemicals in the brain,” she said.
A combination of approaches
Long Covid patients usually perform acupuncture alongside other interventions such as medication or supplements.
Among other things, Villalobos takes ashwagandha, an herb used in traditional Indian medicine. Nichols undergoes intravenous ozone therapy and ultraviolet blood irradiation, and also takes naltrexone, a drug used to treat opioid use disorders. Early research suggests it may help moderate an overactive immune response.
Alisa Bolling, a retired nurse in Parkland, Fla., said that after hopping from doctor to doctor in search of long Covid treatments, she now relies on meditation, acupuncture and a dietary supplement containing boswellia, a herbal extract , which is used in traditional Chinese, Middle Eastern and Indian medicine.
“It sounds crazy, but it works,” Bolling said. “Especially as a nurse I have exhausted all possibilities.”
Kumar said that depending on the patient, a mix of adaptogenic herbs or turmeric might be recommended. But Eastern medicine can be expensive and often not covered by insurance, which can make access difficult. Kumar said most of Beth Israel Lahey Health’s long Covid patients are white women.
Specialist visits and prescription medications can also be costly.
Nichols estimated that she spent $30,000 to $40,000 out of pocket before trying acupuncture.
“I would rather have spent the money on it [alternative] Treatments because they’re actually more healing and supportive for me,” she said. “The Western treatments were a complete waste of money.”