COVID-19 Long Haul: Pizza in the Pan Again?

I remember a scene in the 1979 movie The Jerk, starring Steve Martin as Navin. He was telling Marie (played by Bernadette Peters) about pizza in a cup. They were both eating pizza in a cup. At the time, this was funny because it was ludicrous to think of pizza being served in a cup. It was almost unthinkable. Now you can find recipes for pizza in a cup all over the web. Things have changed.

But what does that have to do with COVID-19 Long Haul Syndrome? As a retired consultation-liaison psychiatrist, I can tell you that it’s beginning to look like things have not changed when it comes to doctors thinking somebody has a psychiatric syndrome if he presents with symptoms that can’t be medically explained. In other words, it’s easier to invent pizza in a cup then to rethink the mind-body dualism puzzle.

That seems to be happening with COVID-19 Long Haulers. I’m beginning to see the telltale signs of somatoform-type labels eventually getting applied to patients who get mild symptoms that sound like COVID-19 early on, but which often don’t get severe enough to require hospitalization. They tend to be younger, and develop long-term symptoms, some lasting for over a year, that sound a lot like what many doctors used to page me about—medically unexplained symptoms (MUS). They have fatigue, often have breathlessness, and pain for which medical tests often turn up negative results. When doctors substitute other words for MUS that they believe are less stigmatizing, there is a predictable backlash by patients who reject the new, softer label. Pizza in a pan.

Further, I noticed a study sponsored by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center listed on Clinical Trial dot gov called Mind Body Intervention for COVID-19 Long Haul Syndrome (first posted April 22, 2021). Participants will be assessed using the Somatic Symptom Scale-8 (SSS-8) which measures somatic symptom burden and was developed in the context of evaluating the DSM-5 somatic symptom disorder diagnosis. Pizza in a pan again.

I also found a comprehensive article on line, “The Medical System Should Have Been Prepared for Long COVID” by Alan Levinovitz, which presented a thorough description of the problem many patients have with physicians telling them their symptoms are “all in their heads.” Unfortunately, this now includes the symptoms of COVID-19 Long Haul Syndrome. In all fairness, I think most physicians try not to give patients that impression. For many years, I was often consulted to assist primary care and specialist physicians in “convincing” patients to think “both/and” about symptoms which could not be medically explained. In fact, that was part of my approach because, believe it or not, some patients were stuck in an “either/or” mindset about symptoms: physical vs psychological, body vs mind, eventually reaching invalidating conclusions like real vs not real. It’s not helpful, partly because physicians tend to get stuck in that mindset as well. We can’t seem to get the pizza out of the pan and into a cup.

Levinovitz mentions that some patients with COVID-19 Long Haul Syndrome have symptoms similar to another syndrome which had been linked to somatoform illness, Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS). There is a great deal of information about it on the CDC website although the cause is still unknown. The CDC language treads very carefully on the issues of causation and treatment—and manage to draw a sort of dotted-line link between ME/CFS and COVID-19. It’s the same old pan.

Levinovitz also mentions Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), another poorly understood syndrome. I remember presenting a Grand Rounds about a patient with this POTS to my colleagues in the Psychiatry Department when I was an Assistant Professor. I invited the cardiologist who consulted me about the issue in one of his patients—who he suspected of having anxiety as the primary issue. Years later, I was consulted by another doctor about a different patient who definitely had abnormal test results (Tilt Table) consistent with POTS, did not suffer from anxiety, yet still thought psychiatry might have something to offer. The patient was puzzled but polite about why a psychiatrist was consulted. Pizza in the pan.

It’s very difficult for physicians to convey, in all humility, “I don’t know, but I still care.” The reasons why are complicated. The push for medical certainty, the packed medical clinic schedules, the limited time to spend with patients. It’s easy to say we must reimagine the way we practice medicine. It’s very hard to do. It’s a lot harder than reimagining the path from pizza in the traditional pan to pizza in a cup.

Foreign Accent Syndrome and the Brain

By now I’m sure you’ve seen the news story about the Australian woman who developed an Irish accent about 10 days after she underwent surgery on her tonsils. This seems to be one of those cases of Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS), which she thinks she might have. Before I retired from my role as a general hospital psychiatric consultant, I never saw a case of FAS.

You can find the University of Texas at Dallas website on FAS, where you learn more about the condition. It’s a very rare speech disorder which usually develops suddenly, causing a native speaker to speak in a “foreign” accent. It can be caused by a brain injury, such as a stroke. The prevailing opinion of neurologists and speech therapists is that most people who have FAS don’t actually speak with a sustained, well-defined foreign accent per se. In fact, they can sound like they have different accents at different times. It’s sort of all in the ears of the beholder, so to speak (pun intended).

What makes FAS even more complicated and interesting is that it can develop in the absence of any clearly identifiable medical cause. It can be a psychogenic disorder, a term which can lead to an immediate backlash from those who have been diagnosed by neurologists and primary care physicians with something called Functional Neurological Disorder (FND)—a relatively new name. It’s intended to be less stigmatizing than other psychiatric diagnoses such as conversion disorder and somatic symptom disorder. As I mentioned above, I’d never encountered a case of FAS, but neurologists and a lot of other colleagues in medicine and surgery consulted me to evaluate their hospitalized patients for other types of FND. Most commonly they were having multiple medically unexplained symptoms including but not limited to hemiparesis or hemisensory loss or spells which mimicked seizures but which didn’t produce abnormal EEG patterns. This was always a challenge, starting from the point of introducing myself as a psychiatric consultant. The patient’s reaction was often that of annoyance because their impression was that their doctors thought they were crazy simply because they called me in on the case.

I always began the evaluation by doing a thorough review of the patient’s medical record, which was often very long and complicated, involving notes from many specialists, many medical tests including surgeries and other invasive procedures, and long medication lists. I listened to their description of their medical problems first, which often included a lot of complaints against doctors who almost invariably were described as invalidating or incompetent or both.

I usually avoided any attempt to convince them their main issues were psychiatric in nature. I ran across one web site which reminded me how counterproductive that approach can be. Occasionally I could connect with someone by simply validating the difficulties they had suffered with all aspects of the health care system. I would ask, “Has a doctor ever implied you were a hypochondriac?” and “Have you ever run into doctors who just didn’t listen?”

Depending on whether the patient and I had developed adequate rapport, I might say that I thought the problem was in their body and that the mind is a part of the body, especially since the mind is connected with the brain. I would also say that patients are entitled to excellent health care and this should be delivered safely, avoiding potentially dangerous and toxic treatments whenever possible.

Because I frequently had to enter a diagnosis of a somatoform disorder in the patient’s chart (which they would eventually see), I would talk to them about somatoform disorder, emphasizing that the root of the word is “soma” which just means body, after all. I would sometimes suggest to patients who abrupt onset of medically unexplained neurologic symptoms, especially those which appeared to be temporally linked to a stressful event (formerly conversion disorder and now FND), I would suggest that the problem would eventually resolve on its own. I couldn’t make up billing codes and I couldn’t please everybody. I discussed cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), since it was the most well-validated psychotherapy in this context at the time. Many patients were not interested in coming to our clinic for therapy, could not travel the long distance, but accepted a handout about CBT which contained a weblink for FND.

Some patients with FAS are accused of faking the speech problem, but they are not. Any psychiatric consultant who has years of experience will tell you that it’s not accurate to say there aren’t any patients who fake medical and mental illness. There are those who have a rare and controversial problem called Factitious Disorder imposed on self. They fake medical and mental illness in themselves and lie about it to health care professionals. There are others who victimize children and dependent adults by manufacturing illness in them, lie about that to health care professionals and that’s called Factitious Disorder imposed on another. The motivation for this behavior is complex and not well understood. This used to be called Munchausen’s Syndrome or Munchausen’s Syndrome by proxy. Furthermore, there are those who malinger, which is feigning illness for secondary gain, such as avoiding jail or getting disability. Malingering is not a psychiatric diagnosis per se. Both Factitious Disorder and malingering are frequently associated with personality disorders.

That said, anyone exhibiting FAS should get a thorough neurologic workup including but not limited to brain imaging and neuropsychological testing. One of the most interesting early cases involved a Norwegian woman who was hit by shrapnel by German bombers during World War II. She suffered severe left hemisphere brain injury (where the speech control center is located in most people) and began to speak with a German-like accent, which led to her being ostracized in her community.

Another fascinating fact is that sometimes FAS patients can correct or at least modify the speech problem simply by singing or by thinking about what they’re going to say before saying it. In some persons, FAS might resolve spontaneously without specific intervention in weeks or months. Speech therapy is often recommended. For those who exhibit FAS in the context of a mental illness like schizophrenia or depression, exacerbations of which can sometimes be linked to FAS, focused psychiatric treatment should be offered.

You can learn more about FAS and FND at the National Neuroscience Curriculum Initiative (NNCI) website. Registration is free and all you need is a login username and password to access many interesting and informative educational modules.

Selected References:

McWhirter L, Miller N, Campbell C, et al Understanding foreign accent syndrome. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry 2019;90:1265-1269.

Keulen S, Verhoeven J, De Witte E, De Page L, Bastiaanse R, Mariën P. Foreign Accent Syndrome As a Psychogenic Disorder: A Review. Front Hum Neurosci. 2016; 10:168. Published 2016 Apr 27. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2016.00168

Indrit Bègue, Caitlin Adams, Jon Stone, David L. Perez, Structural alterations in functional neurological disorder and related conditions: a software and hardware problem? NeuroImage: Clinical,Volume 22, 2019,101798, ISSN 2213-1582, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nicl.2019.101798. (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2213158219301482)

Coach’s Corner: Somatoform Illness

This is a short Coach’s Corner video on somatoform and related abnormal illness behaviors which prompt physicians to request psychiatric consultation. Medically unexplained physical symptoms are not rare in the hospital and in medical clinics.

The general idea is to remember Stephen Covey’s caution about effectiveness and efficiency, which is that you have a lot better chance being effective rather than efficient with people.

“With people, slow is fast and fast is slow.”

Stephen Covey

The point is that it’s very important to listen for understanding and to validate pain and suffering. That means sitting with patients and taking time to hear what they tell you.

There is an excellent presentation on conversion disorder (also known as functional neurological disorder) on the National Neuroscience Curriculum Initiative (NNCI) web site. It’s very helpful for clinicians and patients.

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