- Dec 22, 2012
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Throughout the pandemic, the department of neurology at Johns Hopkins University has been flooded with consultation requests for people suffering from insomnia. Rachel Salas, one of the team’s neurologists, says she initially thought this surge in sleep disorders was merely the result of all the anxieties that come with a devastating global crisis: worries about health, the economic impact, and isolation. Indeed, patterns of sleep disruption have played out around the world. Roughly three-quarters of people in the United Kingdom have had a change in their sleep during the pandemic, according to the British Sleep Society, and less than half are getting refreshing sleep. “In the summer, we were calling it ‘COVID-somnia,’” Salas says.
In recent months, however, Salas has watched a more curious pattern emerge. Many people’s sleep continues to be disrupted by predictable pandemic anxieties. But more perplexing symptoms have been arising specifically among people who have recovered from COVID-19. “We’re seeing referrals from doctors because the disease itself affects the nervous system,” she says. After recovering, people report changes in attention, debilitating headaches, brain fog, muscular weakness, and, perhaps most commonly, insomnia. Many don’t seem anxious or preoccupied with pandemic-related concerns—at least not to a degree that could itself explain their newfound inability to sleep. Rather it is sometimes part of what the medical community has begun to refer to as “long COVID,” where symptoms persist indefinitely after the virus has left a person. When it comes to sleep disturbances, Salas worries, “I expect this is just the beginning of long-term effects we’re going to see for years to come.”
The coronavirus can cause insomnia and long-term changes in our nervous systems. But sleep could also be a key to ending the pandemic.