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Some coronavirus patients may experience serious neurological complications

Published Apr 22nd, 2020 8:08PM EDT
Coronavirus Complications
Image: Duncan Williams/CSM/Shutterstock

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  • Neurological symptoms have been observed in patients who did not show other signs of the novel coronavirus, a recent study revealed.
  • New research shows that patients who are admitted to the hospital for treatment can develop a neurological complication called the Guillain-Barré syndrome.
  • The neurological condition can develop after other viral infections and has various signs, including weakness in the limbs, lack of reflexes, tingling, and even paralysis.
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Aside from the coronavirus symptoms that are commonly cited, such as fever, coughing, and fatigue, there are plenty of other clinical manifestations of COVID-19. Some doctors who thought they were treating patients suffering from a neurological disease discovered that the neurological sings they were witnessing were caused by COVID-19 infection. Some people experienced pronounced confusion, while others displayed seizure-like movements, all indicative of a neurological issue.

Those findings were translated into new protocols, and doctors were trained to expect these unusual symptoms in COVID-19 patients, including the ones who lacked more common symptoms of the novel coronavirus disease. It turns out the neurological ailments do not stop there, and some of the infected patients might exhibit an entirely different condition that could end up being life-threatening.

Guillain-Barré syndrome is a condition where the body’s immune system can turn against the host, and in this case the peripheral nerves. What COVID-19 has taught us so far is that an exacerbated immune response is usually bad and can lead to multiple complications, organ failure, and even death.

“Guillain-Barré syndrome is a well-known condition in which one’s immune system targets peripheral nerves as foreign and attacks them, resulting in the cardinal features of the disease,” Northwell Health in Great Neck’s neuromuscular medicine head Dr. Anthony Geraci told Medical Express.

The symptoms he was referring to can include “weakness, areflexia [absence of reflexes], paresthesia [tingling], and in some cases, facial weakness and ataxia [poor balance].” The syndrome can appear after other infections, including Epstein-Barr, cytomegalovirus, Zika, flu, hepatitis, HIV, and more.

Doctors from the Italian city of Pavia penned a study in the New England Journal of Medicine that reveals COVID-19 patients can exhibit the Guillain-Barré syndrome after the onset of the primary symptoms. Five patients out of 1,200 treated in the city between February 28th and March 21st showed signs consistent with the neurological syndrome.

The Guillain-Barré symptoms developed within five to 10 days after the more common COVID-19 signs. It can start with weakness in the legs, tingling, and facial weakness. After two more days, the neurological symptoms can get worse, and all four limbs can be weakened or paralyzed.

The patients received immune globulin therapy to boost their immune response, and one patient received plasma from a COVID-19 survivor. A month into the treatment, one patient was discharged and was able to walk independently, two were still in the ICU where they received mechanical ventilation, and two received physical therapy following their paraplegia.

While the Guillain-Barré syndrome appears to be a rare COVID-19 complication, the findings are essential, especially for treating critical patients who might be placed into an induced coma while in the ICU.

“In those cases, weakness and sensory loss can be very difficult to identify if they are not awake, moving their limbs, or able to tell you what they are experiencing,” neurologist Sami Saba told Medical Express. “However, since Guillain-Barré can affect the muscles that help us breathe, it will be very important to consider the diagnosis in those who have trouble coming off the ventilator, especially if their lung function looks to be recovering.”

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.