CHICAGO — Researchers say a new study has, for the first time, confirmed that COVID-19 can cause the body to attack itself. Deep medical imaging is uncovering that some symptoms of soreness and joint pain can be prolonged and require lifelong management
Aside from losing her sense of smell last June, Tajma Hodzick had none of the tell-tale signs of a COVID infection.
“I didn't even lose my sense of taste completely. It was mostly just sense of smell,” she recalled.
But within a few days of testing positive, the 31-year-old woman started to have more serious side effects. Blisters appeared on her hands, rashes on her legs and arms, and her joints began to swell.
“I started also having some pain in my feet. I did end up in the E.R. just because the swelling was really big on my hands. I had blisters,” said Hodzick. “I couldn't wash my hands, because I couldn't rub them together; it hurt so bad.”
A new paper published in the journal Skeletal Radiology confirmed and documented the causes of these types of symptoms through CT scans, MRIs and ultrasound.
“In some patients, COVID-19 triggers an autoimmune reaction, which means the virus can trick the body into attacking itself,” explained Dr. Swati Deshmukh, a musculoskeletal radiologist and assistant professor at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.
She’s one of the authors of the study.
“Some of my patients have recovered and imaging has shown signs of improvement, but for other patients, and especially patients with these autoimmune conditions that have been triggered by COVID-19, they will need lifelong treatment,” said Deshmukh.
In some cases, Dr. Deshmukh says these types of inflammatory responses can mysteriously appear without other common coronavirus symptoms.
“They may not even know that they have been infected with the virus, and then, later on, they go on to develop problems with muscles, with nerves with joints,” she said.
The imaging, she says, can help explain the origins of the symptoms and guide post-COVID-19 treatments from a rheumatologist or dermatologist.
After two hospitalizations and three biopsies, Hodzick was eventually diagnosed with COVID-induced psoriatic arthritis. It could be one of the firsts of its kind.
The chronic condition now requires her to take medication daily.
“We really don't know if once it works itself out of my system, what that's going to look like,” she said. “If I, at some point, I begin weaning myself off of the medication or if those symptoms are going to come back. So really right now, it's a pretty big unknown.”
It’s another long-haul symptom that experts say proves just how much remains to be learned about the lingering effects of the virus.