Does the pandemic impact our anatomy? Yes.
In the beginning of 2020, a spiky protein latched itself into our bloodstreams and proceeded to replicate, spread, and mutate. In so doing, it has killed over two million people. For just about everyone else, it has upended plans, jobs, lives: how we learn, travel and interact with the world around us.
Covid-19 has left no corner of our lives untouched, and it is not done yet. Would we be remiss to dismiss its effects on our anatomy, going forward?
While it is far too early to establish a conclusive body of work, scientists are starting to piece together the myriad effects the pandemic has had on our bodies. Of course, researchers have to consider not just the virus, but also its partners in crime: social isolation, institutional racism, economic hardships, stress. Yes, these problems manifest in the human body! Let’s take a look.
[A recent Atlantic article surveys what health care professionals have seen in their fields.]
Jaspal Singh is a Pain and Rehabilitation medicine specialist in New York whose practice before the pandemic focused mostly on patients with lower back and leg pain. Now, more than half of his patients have neck and upper back pain, pain that arises in no small part due to “curving your shoulders forward, jutting your head out in front of your body to look at a laptop whose screen is too low, and maintaining that position for hours at a time, all while sitting in a chair meant to support a human for the duration of a meal, not a workday.”
Natalia Ruiz, a physical therapist in the New York area, has noticed an increase in “repetitive strain” injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis in the hands and forearms, and pinched nerves in elbows.
Nancy Durban, a pediatric physical therapist in Cincinnati, has observed children with increased muscle tension, which means increased anxiety, less sleep, and less physical movement. Similarly, Singh discusses a “pain cycle” he sees in elderly patients. Overall, they are taking fewer walks, which cause weaker legs, which effects gait. A compromised gait increases the likelihood of a fall, which could be devastating if the patient is alone. Social isolation, insist several university professors, accelerates the aging process.
According to a study of a hospital in a low-income neighborhood of New York, there was a 400 percent increase of patients with hair loss. And in a different study, 68 percent of respondents reported an uptick in “body-focused repetitive behaviors” —skin-picking, nail-biting, hair-plucking.
A Manhattan-based dentist reopened her practice in June 2020, after three months of closure due to SARS-CoV-2. In the six weeks that followed, the dentist claimed without exaggeration that the amount of patients with fractured teeth was greater than in the previous six years. She attributed the tooth trauma to teeth grinding at night and lack of restorative sleep (which leads to clenching of the jaw).
And in the foot department, a Washington D.C. area podiatrist has noticed a substantial uptick in patients with heel and arch pain. Contributing factors include weight gain and more time spent barefoot than usual —two consequences that tend to arise from a “homebound” lifestyle. If you are one of these people, the foot doctor recommends getting out of those slippers and into the shoes, three to four hours per day. [Foot exercises don’t hurt, either!]
While this data may sound overwhelming, it is important to remind ourselves that these trends are reversible —that they’ll go away, once the virus goes away and with proper treatment.
But scientists worry about long-term effects of Covid-19 on mental health. A June 2020 study by the Center of Disease Control found that more than 40 percent of US adults were struggling with mental health and substance use. Another study of US adults in November 2020 reported that 80 percent of participants were experiencing significant symptoms of depression. Researchers called the results “alarming.”
“Loneliness and social isolation increase the risk of myocardial infarction and stroke by up to 30 percent,” says Athena Poppas, the chair of cardiology at Brown University. It is a problem so serious that scientists in the above study consider loneliness as a mortality risk factor along with smoking, alcohol, physical inactivity and obesity.
Have you experienced at least one of the issues mentioned in this post, in the past year? If you have, this is normal! Our bodies are not machines. The pandemic is a monster whose heads we haven’t finished counting. In the meantime, we are not alone in our loneliness.