Long COVID can be extremely distressing for anyone affected. Patients ask why they have developed this long term reaction, despite no longer testing positive for COVID, and wonder for how long they will have to suffer. However, with an accurate understanding of Long COVID, we have every reason to be positive as there is much that can be done to help those suffering from the condition.
In this article I will discuss Long COVID and Advanced Acupuncture in relation to:
- The disease process
- Treatment strategy
- Self care
Below is a list of common symptoms that I have noted amongst Long COVID patients. However, the list is by no means exhaustive and symptoms vary greatly between individuals.
- chest tightness
- shortness of breath
- overwhelming fatigue
- stomach problems
- joint pain
From the patient’s perspective, relief from symptoms is usually the top priority when seeking treatment. This is entirely understandable. As a clinician, an important aim of any treatment is to alleviate suffering by alleviating those symptoms. Crucially however, in Chinese medicine, our treatment strategy must be centred around an understanding of the disease process and the underlying causes of the various symptoms.
When we treat the underlying mechanisms of disease we see symptoms resolve and true healing taking place. Sometimes this can be a frustrating journey for a patient. Unlike popping a painkiller, true healing can take time and resolve. Often, in addition to receiving acupuncture, a patient will need to amend their diet and lifestyle to see real change occur.
How does the body respond to the Coronovirus?
In order to know how to treat Long COVID, it is useful to understand how the coronovirus entered the body in the first place. In Classical Acupuncture, we understand that when the body encounters a pathogen, the body responds by engaging its defensive layer of energy (wei qi) to push that pathogen out of the body. Mechanisms such as a fever, cough, sweat, sneeze and runny nose are all part of a body’s healthy response to the invasion of a pathogen.
If the immune system is very strong, an individual may not even notice, perhaps beyond a sneeze and a micro-sweat, that the pathogen has been encountered and brushed off. Alternatively, a patient may feel awful for an extended period of time as the wei qi battles with the pathogen before finally eradicating it from the body.
When a pathogen is particularly virulent, as in the case of COVID-19, it is better able to get past these defenses and enter the body more deeply. In this situation, certain acupuncture channels will spring into action in attempting to prevent the pathogen from reaching the most critical areas of the body – the internal organs. These channels (called luo and Divergent channels) use the medium of blood and body fluids to create a buffer that envelops a pathogen to hold it in latency.
At this stage the virus is no longer circulating around the body so tests may come back negative. If the person is relaxed, well rested and nourished, mediumship may be plentiful and the pathogen can be held successfully latent and no symptoms will manifest. If strong enough, the body may even mount what we call a ‘healing crisis’ and attempt to release the pathogen back to the exterior. We then will see symptoms such as a strong fever with sweating or perhaps vomiting and diarrhoea as the pathogen is ejected from the body.
What is happening in cases of Long COVID?
In the case of Long COVID, the body is in a limbo state. The body has sufficient mediumship to prevent the pathogen from reaching the deepest layers of the body but insufficient resources to either quell symptoms entirely or to eject the pathogen fully. Often we see symptoms that come and go depending on how taxed the body is at any particular time, such as symptoms that worsen with exertion or emotional stress.
How do we approach Long COVID with Advanced Acupuncture?
It is imperative when treating Long COVID with acupuncture, to ascertain which resources are deficient and nourish them accordingly. We make this diagnosis based on an analysis of the clients’ signs, symptoms and case history. Tongue diagnosis and palpation of the pulse are also indispensable diagnostic tools for the Chinese medicine clinician. We can then begin acupuncture treatment which is targeted towards nourishing those overtaxed resources.
What can patients do at home?
As well as treating with acupuncture, we are able to advise our patients on the most appropriate changes they can make to build those resources themselves. This will always be fine tuned for each individual patient but there is general advice that most people will benefit from.
Hydration is absolutely essential, forming the basis of the blood and fluids that the body needs, both as a vehicle to transport a pathogen out of the body and also to create the buffer that holds a pathogen in latency. This goes beyond just drinking water. While water is perfect for flushing our body of toxins, we need to consume water in a form that moves through the body slowly, giving the body the chance to more fully absorb it. For this we need wet foods such as porridges, broths, soups and stews.
All the food and drink we consume must be brought up to body temperature and broken down before it can be properly digested. Therefore, cold and raw foods should be kept to a minimum while suffering from Long COVID. I would say that some room temperature fruit or salad is okay but the main part of any meal should be warm and cooked. When we drink plain water, it should be warm.
Foods to avoid
Certain foods and drinks are particularly inflammatory or heating, thus overly hindering or consuming the body’s fluids. In particular, caffeine (especially coffee), alcohol and sugary foods should be avoided. Many patients would also benefit from reducing wheat and dairy as these have a damp, sticky quality which can hinder the digestion.
Chillies, onions and garlic should be used with caution. While they trigger an immune response in the short term (useful at the first sign of a cold for example), continued use overtaxes the immune response and can leave it depleted.
The other really important aspect to consider is rest. Our immunity and our resources are built while we are asleep. To do this adequately we need to be in bed before 11pm, perhaps much earlier in cases where our resources are already depleted.
For many Long COVID sufferers, the anxiety means they find it difficult to get quality rest. When anxious we often find ourselves constantly distracted by past memories or fears about the future. We find it difficult to relax into the present moment. Acupuncture is excellent for helping to ease anxiety but there are also steps we can take at home. I find that listening to a guided meditation can be very useful to help settle a busy mind. Here is a simple meditation that can help us relax into the present moment:
Finally, Qi gong exercises are invaluable in nourishing our body’s energy. Unlike conventional exercise such as running, qi gong is slow and gentle with a focus on the breath. It can be considered a form of moving meditation. I would urge Long COVID clients to refrain from conventional exercise until they feel strong enough.
For an excellent yet simple example of qi gong exercises to help the lungs, see the link below. These exercises can be enjoyed even by those who suffering with extreme fatigue.
Note: The idea here is not to stretch as far as you can, but to produce a soft relaxed movement with just the beginning of a stretch. Just do as much as feels comfortable.
Go to the video section of the page and click on the one that says ‘qi gong for patients’.
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