Acupuncture may help recover taste, smell after COVID-19

A scientifically researched symptom of COVID-19 is the loss of taste and smell. According to the Journal of Internal Medicine, on average, patients recover these senses within 21.6 days of testing positive, whereas others reported a 60-day timeframe. There were even patients who dealt with these symptoms for much longer.

Flagstaff Business News published an article referencing the effects acupuncture can have on the loss of taste and smell in those who experienced COVID-19 infection. 

Dr. Christina Kovalik, a naturopathic physician and acupuncture specialist, has practiced acupuncture since 2004 and she contributed to this recent discovery. With locations in Flagstaff and Scottsdale, Kovalik said she has treated people with symptoms like sinus congestion, allergies and headaches.

“More recently treating this condition with the pandemic, I have had a handful of patients in the last six months with the post-COVID loss of smell and taste,” Kovalik said.

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, acupuncture is a form of Chinese medicine dating back thousands of years. It is practiced by licensed acupuncturists, chiropractors, medical doctors and naturopathic specialists alike. Different results are targeted based on distinct pains, such as back, neck and dental. 

Kovalik said she focuses on the importance of enjoying food again, which is possible through her treatment. 

“Acupuncture works very well at opening the nasal passageways, boosting the immune system, opening the lungs and improving breathing,” Kovalik said. “So naturally, I did some research and found multiple acupuncture points that improve taste and smell.”

The acupuncture process involves thin needles poked in specific spots on the skin and then moved around in particular motions, either by a specialist or electronic stimulation. Based on the same publication from Johns Hopkins, this process should be painless, but poor placement of the needles during treatment can cause pain.

The article also noted acupuncture needles are regulated by the FDA, so not everyone can acquire them. Moreover, people seeking this treatment should do research before choosing a specialist. 

Kovalik said acupuncture sessions range from 30 to 60 minutes. During this time, the qi, a term for the energy transferred on the pathways between small needles, is stimulated. 

“This results in a balancing effect, releases natural endorphins, creates a sense of well-being and lessens symptoms,” Kovalik said.

There is a possibility acupuncture is not right for certain individuals, and it is important to remember results vary, Kovalik said. Clients need anywhere from one to five sessions before differences in taste and smell become apparent, she added, although additional treatment is often necessary for perpetual results.

Another acupuncture specialist in Flagstaff, Teresa Buechel from Buechel Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, shared her views on Kovalik’s practice. 

“The article is good and totally makes sense,” Buechel said. “I have had several patients with COVID who are experiencing long-hauler symptoms, but none have had loss of taste and smell that lasts.”

Long-haul COVID may induce fatigue, body aches and joint pain, along with menstrual and hormonal issues, Buechel said. 

The director of infectious disease research at Translational Genomics Research Institute, David Engelthaler, said the lack of formally-tested trials and solid scientific evidence does not necessarily mean acupuncture treatment is ineffective in regaining taste and smell — but he would like to see more science behind it.

“Hopefully, carefully controlled clinical trials can be done to fully assess the utility of acupuncture, but until then, there are probably limited negative effects for people who try this as a therapeutic approach,” Engelthaler said. “The good news is that the vast majority of patients who exhibit loss of taste and smell during their COVID infection will regain these senses over time.”

Although Kovalik and Buechel said they believe acupuncture can regenerate smell and taste, Engelthaler advocated for more testing to confirm accurate results. However, none of these doctors disagreed about the possibility of acupuncture as a treatment option in the years to come.  

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