Imaging may uncover how COVID-19 can 'cause body to attack itself,' study finds

The use of radiological imaging, such as CT scans and MRIs, may uncover the reasons behind prolonged musculoskeletal symptoms some COVID-19 patients experience, according to a research paper published Feb. 17 in Skeletal Radiology.

Researchers conducted a retrospective analysis of nine patients who were evaluated for musculoskeletal complications related to COVID-19 at Chicago-based Northwestern Memorial Hospital between May and December. 

They found imaging methods including CT scans, MRIs and ultrasounds, identified swelling or fluid in tissues, hematomas, gangrene, nerve damage and blood clots. In one case, for example, a 72-year-old woman experienced a multijoint rheumatoid arthritis flare-up after contracting COVID-19. Prior to that, her rheumatoid arthritis was dormant for two years. The MRI images in the study show inflammation in the patient's shoulder.

"We've realized that the COVID-19 virus can trigger the body to attack itself in different ways, which may lead to rheumatological issues that require lifelong management," said Swati Deshmukh, MD, study author and musculoskeletal radiologist at Northwestern Medicine. "That imaging allows us to see if COVID-related muscle and joint pain, for example, are not just body aches similar to what we see from the flu — but something more insidious." 

The findings may inform healthcare providers on the best treatment path for patients who report musculoskeletal symptoms after contracting COVID-19, researchers said. 

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