The Perfect Enemy | Could long COVID finally make us take chronic pain seriously?
October 5, 2022
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Chronic pain is not a topic that comes up often in casual conversation. But, maybe it should —  because millions of Americans live with it every day. In fact, this condition, which causes sufferers to experience protracted and often debilitating pain for weeks, months or even years, affects about 20 percent of American adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That comes to roughly 50 million people. The prevalence of chronic pain has also led to nearly $300 billion in lost productivity annually. 

Since September happens to be chronic pain awareness month, it’s an especially important time to start talking about this common and arduous condition. And as we enter the endemic phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s also critical to consider how it relates to long COVID, which is quickly emerging as an urgent public health concern. Not surprisingly, the two conditions are linked since joint, muscle and nerve pain, chest pain, stomach pain, headaches and more are common symptoms of lingering post-COVID illness. 

One woman profiled in a recent story in the Washington Post said simply, “My body hurts all the time.” Another sufferer, a young man from Chile, said, “Every few days or weeks, I have intense episodes of pain where it hurts to move even a little.” Some reports and studies even suggest that preexisting conditions such as fibromyalgia and chronic pain are risk factors for long COVID. 

Although there is still much to learn about long COVID, the CDC has defined it as a “wide range of new, returning or ongoing health problems” that people continue to experience at least four weeks after being infected with COVID-19. Long COVID has been linked to more than 200 symptoms

Some who contract COVID-19 improve over a matter of weeks or months. Some have continued to struggle with lingering medical issues for more than two years now and have trouble working, exercising or doing much at all. The severity of symptoms run the gamut from somewhat troublesome to life-altering. 

While estimates vary widely, data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau in June showed that almost one in five Americans infected by COVID-19 still have long COVID symptoms. According to the Brookings Institution, which analyzed the Census Bureau data, there are about 16 million Americans ages 18-65 who currently have long COVID. Among those individuals, 2 to 4 million are unable to work as a result, and the annual costs of those lost wages come to about $170 billion. The Brookings report notes that those costs could even get as high as $230 billion. 

All of this is why bringing awareness to chronic pain, long COVID and their connections is vital. Patients still say, repeatedly, that their providers don’t believe them when they complain of lingering COVID symptoms and that it takes ongoing efforts to find doctors who will take their concerns seriously, diagnose them accurately and provide adequate care. But, long COVID is real, and millions are suffering. For those with chronic pain after a COVID infection, it’s important to understand the possible links and to actively advocate for yourself. Armed with the knowledge of how prevalent these conditions are, and how serious they can be, patients will be better equipped to get the care they need. 

Congress also has an opportunity to act by passing two key pieces of legislation, the TREAT Long COVID Act and the CARE for Long COVID Act. The first bill will improve access to medical care for those experiencing long COVID by funding expansions of long COVID clinics and empowering providers, including community health centers and local public health departments. The second bill will advance long COVID research, improve treatments, educate patients, providers and the public about the condition, and more. 

I urge Congress to pass these bills so millions of Americans will not only see some relief from their health problems but also get recognition at the highest level that their troubles are real and that suffering in silence is no longer the way forward.

Martha Nolan is a senior policy advisor at HealthyWomen. HealthyWomen works to educate women ages 35 to 64 to make informed health choices.