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Chest pain with long COVID common but undertreated


As many as 87% of patients experience symptoms after COVID-19 infection that last 2 months or more, one of the most common being chest pain. And chronic chest discomfort may persist in some individuals for years after COVID, warranting future studies of reliable treatments and pain management in this population, a new study shows.

“Recent studies have shown that chest pain occurs in as many as 89% of patients who qualify as having long COVID,” said Ansley Poole, an undergraduate student at the University of South Florida, Tampa, who conducted the research under the supervision of Christine Hunt, DO, and her colleagues at Mayo Clinic, Jacksonville, Fla.

The findings, though preliminary, shed light on the prevalence, current treatments, and ongoing challenges in managing symptoms of long COVID, said Ms. Poole, who presented the research at the annual Pain Medicine Meeting sponsored by the American Society of Regional Anesthesia and Pain Medicine.

Long COVID, which affects an estimated 18 million Americans, manifests approximately 12 weeks after the initial infection and can persist for 2 months or more. Ms. Poole and her team set out to identify risk factors, treatment options, and outcomes for patients dealing with post-COVID chest discomfort.

The study involved a retrospective chart review of 520 patients from the Mayo Clinic network, narrowed down to a final sample of 104. To be included, patients had to report chest discomfort 3-6 months post COVID that continued for 3-6 months after presentation, with no history of chronic chest pain before the infection.

The researchers identified no standardized method for the treatment or management of chest pain linked to long COVID. “Patients were prescribed multiple different treatments, including opioids, post-COVID treatment programs, anticoagulants, steroids, and even psychological programs,” Ms. Poole said.

The median age of the patients was around 50 years; more than 65% were female and over 90% identified as White. More than half (55%) had received one or more vaccine doses at the time of infection. The majority were classified as overweight or obese at the time of their SARS-CoV-2 infection.

Of the 104 patients analyzed, 30 were referred to one or more subspecialties within the pain medicine department, 23 were hospitalized, and 9 were admitted to the intensive care unit or critical care.

“Fifty-three of our patients visited the ER one or more times after COVID because of chest discomfort; however, only six were admitted for over 24 hours, indicating possible overuse of emergency services,” Ms. Poole noted.

Overall, chest pain was described as intermittent instead of constant, which may have been a barrier to providing adequate and timely treatment. The inconsistent presence of pain contributed to the prolonged suffering some patients experienced, Ms. Poole noted.

The study identified several comorbidities, potentially complicating the treatment and etiology of chest pain. These comorbidities – when combined with COVID-related chest pain – contributed to the wide array of prescribed treatments, including steroids, anticoagulants, beta blockers, and physical therapy. Chest pain also seldom stood alone; it was often accompanied by other long COVID–related symptoms, such as shortness of breath.

“Our current analysis indicates that chest pain continues on for years in many individuals, suggesting that COVID-related chest pain may be resistant to treatment,” Ms. Poole reported.

The observed heterogeneity in treatments and outcomes in patients experiencing long-term chest discomfort after COVID infection underscores the need for future studies to establish reliable treatment and management protocols for this population, said Dalia Elmofty, MD, an associate professor of anesthesia and critical care at the University of Chicago, who was not involved in the study. “There are things about COVID that we don’t fully understand. As we’re seeing its consequences and trying to understand its etiology, we recognize the need for further research,” Dr. Elmofty said.

“So many different disease pathologies came out of COVID, whether it’s organ pathology, myofascial pathology, or autoimmune pathology, and all of that is obviously linked to pain,” Dr. Elmofty told this news organization. “It’s an area of research that we are going to have to devote a lot of time to in order to understand, but I think we’re still in the very early phases, trying to fit the pieces of the puzzle together.”

Ms. Poole and Dr. Elmofty report no relevant financial relationships.

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