Covid patients who are flipped on their stomachs – known as prone positioning – during their recovery in intensive care units can experience chronic pain in their arms, legs, feet and hands (Image: Getty Images/EyeEm)
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A new high-tech scan can pinpoint nerve damage in patients who are recovering from Covid-19.
Doctors say the state of the art technology will help them decide on the best course of action when dealing with the debilitating 'long Covid' after effects of the virus.
They can now use utilise ultrasound technology to decide whether Covid survivors with nerve damage need rehabilitation or more serious surgery.
Covid patients who are flipped on their stomachs – known as prone positioning – during their recovery in intensive care units can experience chronic pain in their arms, legs, feet and hands.
This is because prone positioning, a life saving measure to help people with severe coronavirus symptoms breathe, can also cause nerve damage, previous research has found.
Doctors have struggled to treat these secondary symptoms as they have been unable to identify the source of the pain, until now.
An MR image of a patient in their early 20s shows nerve injury (highlighted in yellow) of the left brachial plexus in the neck
(Image: Northwestern University / SWNS)
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Study lead author Assistant Professor Dr Swati Deshmukh, of Northwestern University in the United States, said: "Let's say you have numbness in your fingers.
"That might actually be due to problems in your neck, elbow or wrist, and the best way to figure it out is with an MRI or ultrasound.
"We offer advanced imaging that shows even really, really small nerves, which helps us localise where the problem is, assess the severity and suggest what might be causing it."
The body's immune response may attack the nerves or cause blood to collect outside the blood vessels, known as a haematoma.
Dr Deshmukh said: "Similar to how the body's immune response attacks the lungs in severe COVID cases, some patients have an immune response that affects their nerves.
"Another group of patients developed haematomas as a complication from the blood thinners they were treated with when they had COVID."
An imaging technique which uses ultra-high-resolution ultrasound and MR neurography was tested on patients who had been diagnosed with COVID-19.
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The advanced technology revealed the patient's problem area, how many nerves have been affected and whether it has impacted their muscles, the researchers found.
Dr Deshmukh said: "The advanced ultrasound technology is new, portable, less expensive and can sometimes be even better at detecting nerve damage than MRI.
"Ultrasound also can be performed on patients who are unable to tolerate MR imaging."
The scans will help doctors decide on whether to refer patients to a rehabilitation specialist or in more severe cases, to a surgeon, the researchers say.
Dr Deshmukh said: "If imaging finds nerve damage due to an inflammatory response, the patient may be better served by seeing a neurologist.
"If imaging reveals nerve damage from a haematoma, blood thinner medications would have to be adjusted immediately and the patient may even have to see a surgeon."
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Not knowing why some young and healthy patients have been left with debilitating pain in their limbs after recovering from the virus has prevented doctors, until now, from knowing what to do.
Dr Deshmukh said: "I have to wonder if there are physicians out there who are seeing these otherwise young, healthy patients, and they don't know exactly what's wrong and they're thinking, 'What am I supposed to do for patients with post-COVID pain and weakness?'"
"I want physicians and patients to be aware of the diagnostic options available due to recent innovations in technology, and inquire if advanced imaging might be right for them."
There have been more than 1.6 million confirmed coronavirus cases in the UK and over 58,000 deaths.
The findings were published in the journal Radiology.