Doctors find way to treat lingering headaches in post-COVID patients

Some people who have recovered from COVID-19 have reported getting headaches that can persist for months, but new findings are leading to COVID-19 specific treatments.

According to a neurologist specializing in headache pain, “We have a treatment that not only controls the headache pain, but in addition, controls what causes the headache pain and the systemic symptoms,” said Dr. Stephen Silberstein of Thomas Jefferson University’s Jefferson Headache Center in Philadelphia.

He said a Food and Drug Administration-approved device doctors can prescribe for use at home stimulates the body’s vagus nerve, much like when the nerve is activated by doing deep-breathing exercises with yoga, Pilates or meditation.

“It has the same effect as deep breathing, but it’s continuous for 90 seconds; and this device has been shown to turn off the pathway of neuro-cytokines being released,” Silberstein said.

So called “cytokine storms,” or out-of-control inflammatory reactions, are believed to be behind severe COVID-19 reactions, such as headaches, body aches and trouble breathing.

The device “helps with the headache, but just as important, it’s been shown that it decreases the amount of these inflammatory cytokines in the blood stream,” he said.

Doctors don’t really know how various drugs, such as aspirin, may aggravate underlying causes of COVID-19 symptoms, according to Silberstein. But he said triggering your body into launching its own headache-relieving response is perfectly natural.

“What we’ve noticed for a long time — before we had doctors and before we had drugs — is how powerful the body is in controlling its own pain and symptoms. And, many of the techniques that were used in the past were based on control of our own sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system,” Silberstein said.

“Deep breathing and meditation do that. So, now we have a device that mimics it, but prolongs the effect of vagal nerve stimulation, and it’s really about as natural as you can get,” he said.

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Kristi King

Kristi King is a veteran reporter who has been working in the WTOP newsroom since 1990. She covers everything from breaking news to consumer concerns and the latest medical developments.

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