It’s no secret the stress, isolation and disruption to our routines during the coronavirus pandemic have taken a toll on our health ― and now some of those effects are showing up in doctors’ offices.
Medical providers are seeing an increase in health problems as a direct result of pandemic-era living. Temporary halts to annual doctors’ appointments also played a role.
“Delayed care can have deleterious effects due to worsening of current underlying conditions, missing opportunities to catch a new or developing disease early in its course and not receiving preventive care that can reduce one’s chance of developing a disease,” said Vibin Roy, medical director and primary care doctor with the telehealth service Doctor on Demand.
What health conditions are doctors seeing more of now, and what can you do about them if you’re experiencing them? Here’s a brief guide:
1. Eye Issues
“I’ve definitely seen an increase in digital eye strain ― dry, tired, sore, watery eyes, blurred vision and headaches ― due to increased time in front of smartphones, computers and TVs in adults and kids as a result of working and schooling from home during COVID-19,” said Jennifer Wademan, an eye doctor in Folsom, California.
To fight this, she suggested following the 20-20-20 rule: ″Every 20 minutes, remind yourself to take your eyes off the screen and look at something that’s at least 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds,” she explained.
You also should “turn down the brightness level or use night mode on device screens to reduce the amount of blue light exposure, especially during the evening hours,” she added.
2. Neck And Back Pain
“Neck, back and shoulder pain have been frequent issues for many people after spending the past year working from home, and their workstation ― or lack thereof ― is typically the culprit,” said Michael Richardson, a New York physician at One Medical, a concierge medical practice. “Kitchen counters, soft couches and even beds have been the go-to workstations for many people, and the effects of the repetitive stress caused by poor posture are starting to rear their ugly heads a year later.”
If you’re experiencing this, Richardson recommended frequent stretching, shoulder shrugs and, in some advanced cases, physical therapy.
Additionally, “if you don’t have plans to return to the office, now is a good time to invest in one of those fancy chairs and standing desks or arrange your workstation to reduce the stress on your shoulders,” Richardson added.
3. High Blood Pressure
Blood pressure issues are also on the rise, according to Richardson. “For some, it’s because the pandemic has prevented them from seeing their doctor and receiving primary care. For others, it’s due to a worsening diet and a lack of exercise in their work-from-home routine,” he said.
Stress is also a huge culprit. “Intense work demands and social isolation can seriously take their toll on the body. I’ve been shocked to see how much of a role stress can have on blood pressure,” Richardson said. He recommended scheduling a physical with your primary care doctor to check in on your health and to make a plan to improve it for 2021.
“Intense work demands and social isolation can seriously take their toll on the body.”
– Michael Richardson, physician at One Medical
4. Diabetes And Heart Disease
These are conditions that Hemalee Patel, a San Francisco-based internist, has been seeing more in her practice lately. Extreme weight gain, stress and increased alcohol use, combined with missed physicals, can put people at a higher risk of not catching and properly addressing both of these issues, Patel said. That’s why it’s important to make an appointment with your doctor for a checkup and get the proper bloodwork done as soon as you can.
5. Mental Health Conditions, Such As Depression And PTSD
“We are seeing a huge increase in anxiety, depression and increased OCD [obsessive-compulsive disorder] symptoms due to COVID,” explained Yvette Visconte, the clinical director of behavioral health at Families Together of Orange County Community Health Center in California.
Visconte said more kids and elderly people have been exhibiting more symptoms of anxiety and depression because of the sense of isolation in the last year. “Parents are also feeling the pressure to push their [kids with anxiety or depression] to do their schoolwork all while trying to balance their own work,” she added. “And we’ve been seeing a heightened sense of people feeling overwhelmed and then engaging in hours or compulsive cleaning and sanitizing.”
Additionally, people have been experiencing pandemic-related post-traumatic stress disorder. Experts are dubbing this specific type “COVID PTSD.” Paul Kaloostian, a board-certified neurosurgeon in California, said he has been seeing COVID PTSD in many patients ― from those who had the virus to those who lost a loved one to COVID-19.
“Additionally, the stress of not being able to be in the hospital with their loved one while sick or dying has taken a big toll on millions of people across the globe,” he said. “The social isolation, income loss, working from home with kids and being a caregiver have also all caused or contributed to this stress disorder.”
If you’ve been dealing with any mental health issues, make an appointment with a licensed therapist (either online or in person). A mental health professional can help you manage your symptoms.
6. Cracked Teeth, Cavities And Other Dental Problems
“I’ve seen an increase in cracked teeth, cavities which need fillings and jaw pain from patients who are avoiding the dentist,” said Jeffrey Sulitzer, a dentist and chief clinical officer at SmileDirectClub.
He noted that these issues are caused by lack of oral hygiene (in other words, not properly brushing teeth or flossing regularly), tobacco products, increased alcohol consumption and stress. That’s why it’s vital to start prioritizing annual appointments and teeth cleanings again. And if you’re not quite ready to go in person, Sulitzer said, “teledentistry appointments can ensure patients are taking care of their teeth properly from home.”
7. Gynecological Issues
Natalya E. Danilyants, co-founder of The Center for Innovative GYN Care in New York City, said millions of women suffering from complex gynecological conditions, such as endometriosis and fibroids, haven’t received the care they need over the last year.
“Many surgeries to treat these conditions have been deemed ‘elective’ by hospitals and canceled as a result,” she said. “Timely treatment is critical, and delaying care results in more severe symptoms and complicated conditions over time.”
A doctor can help you get the care you need and schedule a surgery. Reach out as soon as you’re able, especially if your symptoms have gotten worse.
“Timely treatment is critical, and delaying care results in more severe symptoms and complicated conditions over time.”
– Natalya E. Danilyants, co-founder of The Center for Innovative GYN Care
8. Hair Loss
“In the fall of 2020, primary care physicians and dermatologists started to notice a substantial increase in the number of people, particularly women, who were reporting that their hair was falling out in clumps,” said Alexa B. Kimball, the CEO and president of Harvard Medical Faculty Physicians at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and a professor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School.
This phenomenon, called telogen effluvium, is typically caused by stress, illness or pregnancy. “When it occurs, the intrinsic hair clocks synchronize and result in shedding, similar to what happens to other mammals when the temperature changes,” she added.
Though scary, Kimball said the problem usually goes away on its own. “You have to wait it out ― a hair growth cycle of shedding and growth lasts about four months,” she explained. But if you are concerned, make an appointment with a doctor. There could be an underlying condition that can be addressed and treated.
9. Acne And Other Skin Issues
“The diagnosis of ‘maskne,’ which is an entirely new term, has now become commonplace,” said Geeta Shah, a board-certified dermatologist in Washington, D.C.
She added that ensuring that your skin is clean and well-hydrated is very important when wearing a mask. “I encourage patients to wash their face twice a day with gentle cleanser, and then use a hydrating moisturizer,” she explained.
Facial redness and rosacea flares have also been on the rise. “Masks can cause pressure on the cheeks, chin and nose, which contributes to an increase in redness, flushing and broken blood vessels,” Shah said. She noted that it’s important to continue wearing sunscreen because sun exposure can worsen the redness.
10. Substance Misuse
S. Monty Ghosh, an addiction physician in Canada, has been seeing an increase in substance misuse (an increase in alcohol misuse, in particular).
“Individuals who were initial social drinkers are reporting heavy alcohol consumption to the point that they cannot stop drinking for fear of withdrawal symptoms,” Ghosh said. He cites isolation, a disruption in work routines, stress, unemployment and lack of day-to-day structure as some of the common driving factors.
“The key to mitigating this is to recognize the disruption drinking is causing and seeking support, including medication, counseling and social support,” Ghosh said.
Many alcohol support groups have pivoted to online platforms, which can be of benefit especially for those concerned about attending meetings in their own towns or running into people they may know.
“Our practice has seen an increase in the incidence of advanced-stage colon cancer since March 2020,” said Austin Garza, a physician at Associates in Gastroenterology in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
He and his colleagues think this is a direct result of delayed care and blood work, with patients reluctant to seek medical attention due to COVID-19 concerns. And physicians note that it’s been the same for other cancers across the board. Keeping up with preventative screenings, such as colonoscopies and mammograms, is key.