Frustrated by a lack of results from Western medicine, some long Covid patients have turned to Eastern alternatives. Many say acupuncture, in particular, has provided relief.
Lauren Nichols, a Massachusetts resident who got Covid in March 2020, estimated that over two years she had tried around 30 different pharmaceuticals to ease her migraines, brain fog, fatigue, seizures, diarrhea and other lasting symptoms.
Eventually her physical limitations — and a lack of answers — became so overwhelming that she developed suicidal thoughts.
"I was very close to not being in 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 its worst, I was having migraines about two times a day. And then eventually, one time a day," she said. Now, Nichols said, the migraines and most other symptoms have resolved themselves, thanks to a combination of alternative therapies.
As of February, about 11% of U.S. adults who’d ever had Covid were experiencing long Covid, according to data from a household survey conducted by the Census Bureau. Long Covid is generally defined as having symptoms that last at least three months after a coronavirus infection.
There is no standard treatment, so doctors often prescribe medications based on an individual's symptoms. Some long Covid patients take steroids, while others use antiviral drugs or medications designed to treat seizures, high blood pressure or muscle weakness.
Doctors readily acknowledge that it's a trial-and-error process, and not all patients find relief.
"There has been an unfortunate pattern of [long Covid] patients going to doctors and not feeling that they’re getting what they need, or feeling like they’re trying all these medicines and it’s not getting them the result that 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 suggest acupuncture to long Covid patients, even though there isn't clinical data to support that particular use.
Some research is underway, however. A clinical study in the U.K. is giving people with long Covid weekly 15-minute acupuncture treatments for six weeks, and those in a control group "semi-structured" phone consultations with a clinician.
Dr. Imogen Locke, a clinical oncologist at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London, is spearheading the study and said she doesn't expect full results until 2025. But anecdotally, Locke said, the participants receiving acupuncture so far "do seem to be responding."
"Obviously, we have to wait for when the data is unlocked," she said.
Studying acupuncture's effects 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 awful muscle fatigue, as if I'd run like four marathons in a day," she said.
After receiving three weeks of acupuncture through 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 nearly 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, people receiving a placebo in such studies know that needles are not piercing their skin.
“Is there a good, robust 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 Covid treatments makes patients vulnerable to predatory providers.
“Many people are preying 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 getting benefit because of a placebo effect. But honestly, at this stage, if it makes them feel better, it’s still making them feel better,” he said.
Occasionally, though, there can be harmful side effects to alternative therapies, according to Michelle Haddad, who runs 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 can’t be harmful to me,’ and it can. It’s very important that people keep their providers informed,” she said.
Many long Covid patients swear by acupuncture
Rachel Villalobos, who lives in Seaside, California, decided to try acupuncture last fall after contending with high blood pressure, headaches, dizziness, chest pain, heart palpitations and dark spots in her vision — the effects 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 fainting 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 remain upright.
“I would just pass out,” Villalobos said. “I couldn’t stand up. I couldn’t walk up our steps in our house because I would just fall over. For a while, I couldn’t even hold my head up.”
Villalobos said she took blood pressure medication, a steroid, over-the-counter painkillers and Benadryl.
But with acupuncture, she said, "everything seemed to just kind of calm down." Her heart palpitations have stopped, she said.
Christine Kaiser, the clinical manager of acupuncture and quality at University Hospitals Connor Whole Health in Ohio, estimated that at least 75% of her long Covid patients had responded well to acupuncture, even though many were hesitant about trying it.
“They’re frustrated and I think maybe a little skeptical — like, they’ve tried so many things, what is this going to do? But they’re willing to try it,” she said.
Kaiser explained that many long Covid symptoms were similar to those practitioners had addressed with acupuncture before the pandemic.
“Acupuncture reduces inflammation. It regulates that autonomic nervous system, helps to increase blood flow, helps to release neurochemicals in the brain,” she said.
A combination of approaches
Long Covid patients usually undertake acupuncture in concert with other interventions, such as medications or supplements.
Villalobos takes, among other things, 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 disorder. Early research suggests it may help temper an overactive immune response.
Alisa Bolling, a retired nurse in Parkland, Florida, said that after bouncing from doctor to doctor looking for long Covid treatments, she now relies on meditation, acupuncture and a supplement that contains boswellia, an herbal extract used in traditional Chinese, 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 blend of adaptogenic herbs or turmeric might be recommended. But Eastern medicine can be expensive and often isn’t covered by insurance, which can hinder access. Kumar said most of Beth Israel Lahey Health's long Covid patients were white women ages 20 to 60.
Specialist visits and prescription drugs can be costly too.
Nichols estimated that she spent $30,000 to $40,000 out-of-pocket before trying acupuncture.
“I would have rather have spent that money on these [alternative] treatments because they actually are for me more curative and more supportive,” she said. “The Western treatments have been nothing short of a waste of money."