In-Depth: Vagus nerve could control long COVID symptoms

Treatment possible through electronic therapy
Posted at 6:10 AM, Mar 09, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-09 13:55:08-05

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - Doctors say they have found a link between the vagus nerve and many symptoms of long COVID.

The vagus nerve runs from the skull base through the upper torso. It helps regulate organ functions, including digestion, heart rate, breathing, and reflexes like coughing and sneezing.

According to a new study, many symptoms of long COVID are similar to symptoms people experience when they have Vagus Nerve Dysfunction (VND).

"They have difficulty swallowing or in their voice. They also have problems with sweating, heart rate, and breathing," says Dr. Gemma Llados, an Infectious Disease Specialist at Germans Trias i Pujol University Hospital in Badalona, Catalonia, Spain

She's been working with long COVID patients for 18 months and started to notice the similarities between the two diseases.

Her study analyzed 350 long COVID patients. It found 27% of the ones she analyzed had thickening or inflammation of the vagus nerve in the neck.

In addition, 86% of the patients reported at least three VND-related symptoms. They included diarrhea (73%), dizziness (45%), flattened "diaphragmatic curves" (46%), trouble swallowing (72%), digestive problems (42%), acid reflux (47%), and abnormal voice function (47%).

After seeing the numbers, Dr. Llados and her colleagues wrote, "Our findings so far thus point at Vagus Nerve Dysfunction as a central pathophysiological feature of long COVID."

"To know the cause and to investigate on that," says Dr. Llados, "It's really important to our patients."

She believes that the same kind of electropulse therapy used on VND can help alleviate long COVID systems.

"If you can stimulate the vagus nerve, it has the capacity of modulating the inflammatory reaction," Dr. Llados says.

Dr. Llados will present the results of her study at this year's European Congress on Clinical Microbiology & Infectious Diseases (ECCMID) in Lisbon from April 23-26.

Meanwhile, other doctors are looking at different forms of electro-pulse therapy to help with all kinds of long COVID symptoms.

In a study released in February, doctors from Texas looked into the impact of Enhanced External Counter-Pulsation therapy (EECP) on long COVID patients.

EECP is typically used for heart conditions and helps improve blood flow through the body. (For a brief video of the process, click here.)

Doctors at Flow Therapy, an EECP clinic in Fort Worth, had long COVID patients undergo 15 or 35 EECP sessions. They found 97% of their patients saw improvement in chest pain. 88% were less fatigued. 83% could walk farther in a standard 6-minute assessment. And 63% reported breathing easier.

In a news release with the study, Dr. Sachin Shah, the Chief Scientific Officer at Flow Therapy, called the results "promising."

He added that "Patients with long COVID need viable treatment options, and we're working toward that."

EECP is not FDA approved for long COVID treatment, but Dr. Shah and his colleagues are calling for more robust studies of the possible benefits. In February, they presented their study at the American College of Cardiology's Cardiovascular Summit.