ST. LOUIS (KTVI) – St. Louis medical researchers are worried about a possible spike in the opioid crisis because a growing number of doctors are prescribing painkillers to COVID-19 long-haulers.

A joint study by the Washington University School of Medicine and the Veterans Health Administration is encouraging doctors to seek alternative treatments for long-hauler instead of opioids.

“This may cascade down to be a bigger problem down the road,” said lead researcher Dr. Ziyad Al-Aly, Washington University and the Veteran’s Health Administration.

Al-Aly said the study showed long-haulers were taking more opioids to manage pain than other VA patients.

A COVID-19 long-hauler is someone whose symptoms last weeks or even months.

“We were hoping that opioid prescriptions were going down nationwide, and they were before the pandemic hit,” he said. “Now we see with long COVID, some people are coming back with pain and are being prescribed opioids. That sort of raises some alarm bells of us.”

Al-Aly said more than 3 million of the 31 million Americans infected with the coronavirus have developed long-term symptoms.

“I still exhibit the brain fog,” said Mary Coleman, a COVID long-hauler patient.

Coleman, a St. Charles County resident, does not use opioids. She tested positive in January after her father died of COVID. She still has symptoms, including extreme fatigue.

“Can you imagine that if everybody that has been diagnosed with COVID and, six or eight or nine months later, are still dealing with symptoms and then you give them the opportunity to take opioids to address some of their issues? It’s just such a slippery slope,” Coleman said.

Al-Aly said opioids should be used as a last resort, at a low dose, and for a short period of time. He said there are effective alternatives.

“Long COVID is real. The pain is real and must be treated, however, it should be treated with non-steroidals. Some patients are responding favorable to non-steroidals,” he said. “There are other options, including Tylenol and physical therapy. Some form of physical therapy that’s tailored specifically for long COVID patients.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the drug overdose death toll rose by nearly 5% from 2018 to 2019 and has quadrupled since 1999. More than 70% of the 70,630 deaths in 2019 involved an opioid, the agency said.

In addition, the CDC estimates that the total “economic burden” of prescription opioid misuse in the U.S. is $78.5 billion a year.