Patients and doctors struggle through severe long-haul COVID numbness, paralysis

Posted at 7:59 AM, Feb 23, 2022

COVID case counts are going down in many parts of the United States but it’s likely that most people either already got COVID (whether they know it or not) or at least know a few people who have battled the disease.

Even with all that modern medicine has to offer patients and their doctors, many are still stumped by some of the most severe conditions emerging after patients appear to recover from the coronavirus.

I took a shower back in March of 2021 and didn’t realize that I had my socks on because I couldn’t feel my feet,” said Matt Close.

Matt has been in a wheelchair for months while trying to recover from paralysis after he recovered from COVID.

What started as Close’s bizarre lapse after he got COVID in February 2021, quickly became much more serious when the numbness moved up his legs and pain set in soon after. Close wasn’t vaccinated because of an auto-immune disease, but he says his wife did get the shot.

“One Friday evening, I started falling and I could not get up the stairs and that’s when I knew something was wrong,” said Close. “Finally I did have a doctor that said, ‘Hey, there’s multiple of you and there’s one common thread and it’s COVID.”

Close recovered from the traditional COVID symptoms roughly a year ago, but he’s been in a wheelchair or using a walker to get around for months, preventing him from driving. He’s also often in intense pain because of nerve regeneration in his legs. Physical therapy helps him improve and move around a little better, but cases like Close’s are making doctors like University Hospitals Neurologist Dr. Kamal Chemali take notice.

Dr. Chemali says the medical community needs more research to figure out why some patients are having some pretty severe post-COVID symptoms.

“We have to consider the long-term complications as part of the whole disease,” said Chemali.

Chemali says it’s not uncommon for viruses to affect the nervous system for a little while, but that the numbness and temporary paralysis usually only lasts a short time. He’s seeing patients in situations that seem similar to Close who seem to beat the virus only to have these conditions set in later.

“Suddenly, they start to develop these neurological symptoms and within a few days, they were paralyzed,” said Dr. Chemali. “Totally paralyzed.”

Close uses a walker to get around and has been able to work from home during his recovery.

It’s a big reason politicians and the National Institute of Health are throwing more funding at research for post-COVID conditions and the mental health challenges they create for patients.

Senator Sherrod Brown’s (D-Ohio) office pointed out that he voted for the American Rescue Plan, which had nearly $500 million to support large-scale studies on the long-term effects of COVID.

Representatives Antony Gonzalez (OH-16) and David Joyce (OH-14) introduced the Brycen Gray and Ben Price COVID-19 Neurological Impact Act, which is looking to boost research funding for “neurological and psychiatric illnesses associated with COVID-19 infection,” according to a press release.

Anthony Gonzalez
In this image from video, Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, R-Ohio, speaks on the floor of the House of Representatives at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Thursday, April 23, 2020. (House Television via AP)

Because COVID is still relatively new and changing, it’s hard to get a good idea of how common conditions like Close’s are in the general population. The hope is that additional research will help shed light on why the numbness, pain, and paralysis lingers in patients longer than it does after other viruses, and how to properly address it.

“What is causing that neurological problem to happen?,” asked Chemali. “Is it just a viral infection like any other? Are these symptoms different from post-COVID infections and other virus post-infections? This is where research really has to be active.”

In the meantime, Close goes to regular physical therapy trying to figure out what happens next.

“I am getting better, but it has been a long time,” said Close.

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