Medical imaging shows how COVID attacks the body, new study finds

CHICAGO -- Medical images can reveal COVID-19's long-term damage on patients' muscles, nerves, joints, bones and other soft tissues, and the imaging can lead to better-guided treatment for patients, according to a new medical study released Wednesday.

The new Northwestern University study, published Feb. 17 in the journal Skeletal Radiology, detailed how various types of imaging including ultrasounds, x-rays, MRIs, and CT scans, can confirm how the body attacks itself.

"What we have found is that in some patients with COVID-19, the virus triggers an autoimmune reaction. In other words, the virus tricks the body into attacking itself," said Dr. Swati Deshmukh, author and an assistant professor at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

When the body attacks itself, radiological images, some using contrasting, can show inflamed nerves or dead tissues, the study showed.

It also shows how COVID-19's impact can last months, which is what Tajma Hodzic, 31, of Albany Park, is experiencing right now. She battled COVID-19 in June 2020, but its impact has been long-lasting, triggering an autoimmune disease called COVID-induced psoriatic arthritis.

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"My entire body, and all the joints in my body, were inflamed. I couldn't get out of bed. I couldn't do anything independently. I couldn't shower, eat walk," Hodzic recalled. The pain sent her to the hospital for a second time in 2020.

Hodzic explains psoriatic arthritis this way: "It is an autoimmune disease. It's two parts. The psoriasis piece is the patches and rashes over my body. The arthritis is what we think of, arthritis as a chronic condition."

The radiological images take an expert's eye to understand. Dr. Deshmukh studied various images from other COVID-19 patients, including inflamed nerves, dead and damaged tissues, blood clots, and damaged joints.

Overall, these images can help doctors make medical decisions for their patients, she said.

"Based on what imaging shows, we can then recommend the best next steps for diagnosis, treatment, and management through this long path of recovery," Dr. Deshmukh said. "For that reason, radiologists are sometimes nicknamed the doctor's doctor."

Although imaging helps explain the problem, Hodzic is still concerned about the future, and what it means for her recovery, especially since she's taking medication now to keep her psoriatic arthritis in check.

"We don't know. We don't know if this is something that is going to last for as long as I live, next year, two years, five years," she said. "Or if I can wean myself off medication. It's a pretty big unknown right now."

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