Researchers may have found a way to treat long-COVID fatigue

The solution is a treatment commonly used in childbirth.
Loukia Papadopoulos
Man sitting at a computer rubbing his eyes
Living with long Covid has been a challenge


Newcastle University researchers have shed light on one of the most common side effects of COVID-19: fatigue. They may indeed have a treatment for this debilitating condition.

They have begun a new study to test the effectiveness of a TENS machine to alleviate the fatigue in patients with long COVID. This device is most commonly used in childbirth to alleviate pain.

This is according to a press release by the institution published on Thursday. 

They found that people with post-COVID fatigue showed underactivity in three specific areas of the nervous system.

  • a slower reaction in specific areas of the brain because of underactivity in specific cortical circuits

  • an imbalance in the autonomic nervous system – the network of nerves that regulates unconscious body processes such as blood pressure and the rate of breathing was found to be impaired

  • muscle abnormalities – muscle fibers became more easily fatigued after exercise than in people without post-COVID fatigue

“These abnormalities in the results on objective tests show that fatigue in long Covid is a measurable disease and these tests may, in time, help us understand how changes in the nervous system contribute to fatigue,” said Dr. Demetris Soteropoulos, Senior Lecturer in Motor Systems Neuroscience at Newcastle University who led the research.

The new study followed a group of 37 volunteers with post-COVID fatigue who underwent a series of non-invasive behavioral and neurophysiological tests. Their results were compared to those of 52 control subjects, matched for age and sex, who underwent the same tests. 

Criticism and disbelief

“We know that many people have faced criticism or even disbelief when they report long COVID, so by being able to provide an independent measure, we can help medical teams provide continued support,” said Research Associate Dr. Anne Baker, who is a co-author of the paper.

"Following on from these findings, we are beginning testing at Newcastle University on whether the autonomic nervous system can be modulated to improve symptoms in post-COVID fatigue,” said Research Assistant Natalie Maffitt, a co-author on the paper.

“We’re examining a non-invasive method which involves clipping an earpiece to the tragus on the ear and delivering small electrical currents to the vagus nerve using a TENS machine – familiar to many through its use for pain relief during childbirth.”

The team is now examining whether stimulating the vagus nerve with small electric currents to the skin around the ear can improve symptoms for patients with fatigue after having had COVID.

“The potential is huge which is why it’s so important that we do a careful study to determine whether it works or not,” concluded in the statement study lead, Dr. Mark Baker, Senior Clinical Lecturer at Newcastle University.

The research has been published in Brain Communications.

Study abstract:

Following infection with SARS-CoV-2, a substantial minority of people develop lingering after-effects known as ‘long COVID’. Fatigue is a common complaint with a substantial impact on daily life, but the neural mechanisms behind post-COVID fatigue remain unclear. We recruited 37 volunteers with self-reported fatigue after a mild COVID infection and carried out a battery of behavioural and neurophysiological tests assessing the central, peripheral and autonomic nervous systems. In comparison with age- and sex-matched volunteers without fatigue (n = 52), we show underactivity in specific cortical circuits, dysregulation of autonomic function and myopathic change in skeletal muscle. Cluster analysis revealed no subgroupings, suggesting post-COVID fatigue is a single entity with individual variation, rather than a small number of distinct syndromes. Based on our analysis, we were also able to exclude dysregulation in sensory feedback circuits and descending neuromodulatory control. These abnormalities on objective tests may aid in the development of novel approaches for disease monitoring.