I want to offer hope to the people with Long Covid-19. Having been through four bad pneumonias, with increasingly long recovery times, and now disabled for doing Family Medicine, I have experience to share. First I want to talk about chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia.
I am a piler, not a filer. Including in my brain. I have been adding to the chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia pile since I was in medical school.
In residency a new patient questions me. “Do you believe in chronic fatigue?” he says, nearly hostile.
“Yes,” I reply, “but I don’t know what it is or what causes it or how to fix it.”
For years different causes were suggested. Often infections: EBV, mononucleosis, lyme disease. Some people didn’t have any infection. I did note even in residency that my chronic fatigue patients all had one thing in common: they were exhausting.
Does that sound terrible? They were all type A, high achievers, often super high energy. Often they got sick or crashed when they were working three jobs, or working 20 hours a day on their own business, or doing something that sounded insanely exhausting and unsustainable. And most of them wanted that back. “Ok, wait. You were working 20 hours a day, seven days a week, got sick and THAT is what you want to get back to?”
None of the chronic fatigue people seemed to be type B.
Eventually I read that one in ten people with ANY severe infection can get chronic fatigue.
Then I work with the U of Washington Telepain Clinic, on zoom. They start studying functional MRIs of the brains of people with fibromyalgia.
They use a thumbscrew. They put a measurable amount of pressure on a person with no fibromyalgia. The person reports 3-4 out of 10 pain. The brain lights up a certain amount in the pain centers on the MRI. The doctors can SEE it. Then they test the fibromyalgia people with the same amount of thumbscrew pressure. The fibromyalgia people report 8-9/10 pressure and they are not lying. The pain centers in the brain light up correspondingly more. So they ARE feeling 8-9/10 pain.
Is this a muscle problem? A brain problem? Or both?
It appears to be both. Chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia and other disorders with pain out of proportion to the physical findings were being called “central pain processing disorders”.
I thought of chronic fatigue as a sort of switch. As if at a certain level of stress or exhaustion or infection the body would throw a switch. And force the person to rest.
I wondered if the type B people just rested and got over it, while the type A people fought it like tigers. Which seemed to make it worse.
And now we have Covid-19. The study getting my attention is saying that 20%, or 1 in five people age 18-64, have Long Haul symptoms. Over 65 it is 25%, one in four. And it can happen in people with no preexisting conditions. Preexisting conditions or not, this sucks. The two biggest complaints are lung related and muscle related.
I have chronic fatigue following my third pneumonia in 2014. I might be just a little type A. I went back to work too soon (6 months after the pneumonia) and after a half day would crash asleep at 3 pm. For another 6 months. Now that I have had the fourth pneumonia and have been off for a year and been on oxygen, I feel better than I have since before 2014, even though I still need oxygen part time. Guess I was in denial about the chronic fatigue. NOT ME!
So, dear reader, learn from me and don’t be like me. The biggest thing that I have had to get through my thick type A skull is that when my body wants rest, I need to rest. This can be hella annoying, as my son would say. I have to pay attention to my energy level and decide what to do. And some of my precious energy has to go to things like laundry and paying bills! How very frustrating. My markers are energy level and also pulse. My pulse tells me when I need oxygen and when I am really sick. With the first pneumonia back in 2003, influenza, my resting pulse stayed at 100. My normal then was about 65. When I stood up, my pulse went to 135. It was EXHAUSTING to stand up. I had to rest half way up one flight of stairs. It was hard to walk two blocks to pick my daughter up from primary school. And I looked fine. Neither my doctor nor I could figure it out. I finally guessed that it was lung tissue swelling and hoped it would go down eventually. It did, but it was a full two months and my doctor partners thought I was malingering. I tried not to wish it on them. It sucked and I felt awful back at work, but my pulse had finally come down. We even did a heart ultrasound, but all it showed was a fast heart rate. My chest film looked “normal”, because the tissue swelling is throughout the lungs, so it cannot be seen on a chest xray. It was very weird, but I recovered. And all the descriptions of Long Covid sound like my lung swelling. Fast heart rate, difficulty breathing, muscle pain and terrible fatigue. Go back to the couch.
Go back to the couch and wait. Do what you have to but if your heart rate is over 100 when you get up, you have to rest. Otherwise you will prolong it. Seriously.
More later. Peace me and sending love and peace.
Anna’s hummingbirds can survive below freezing temperatures by slowing their metabolism at night, until it warms up in the morning. Talk about resting!