COVID vaccine–related reactions, and the videos people post about them, are difficult to vet as they exist alongside a sticky web of disinformation that’s been responsible for much of the largely irrational hesitancy around vaccines, face masks, and other preventive measures that are scientifically proven to save lives.
As a result, experts cannot confirm how many of these people may be faking their symptoms.
Dr. Emily Landon, an infectious disease expert with UChicago Medicine, said that while the symptoms people are recording can be “very real and can happen, there are good reasons to be a little bit skeptical.”
“I have no way of knowing whether or not these symptoms are real, staged, or taken out of context, but I also don’t want to minimize what these individuals are posting on social media because it can be really distressing to have significant neurologic symptoms,” Landon told BuzzFeed News. “Occasionally you can see neurological things happen after vaccines, but I think the context of ‘if you get vaccinated this will happen to you,’ is not right.”
Most of the reactions people experience after vaccination, such as fever, muscle aches, and fatigue, go away in a couple of days, Landon said, and “don’t usually cause long-term problems,” at least none that can’t be treated. (Body tremors are not recognized as a COVID vaccine side effect.) That said, and despite the unknowns, it’s important to be empathetic toward anyone experiencing potential medical issues, she added.
Complex, rare reactions to vaccinations of any kind have been documented in scientific case reports and studies, one of the most common being functional neurological disorder (FND), according to Dr. Christopher Chauncey Spears, a clinical associate professor of neurology at the University of Michigan.
FND is not caused by a disease or damage to the nervous system like other conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, but it “can be triggered by most anything that is stressful,” including psychological trauma or getting pricked by a needle during vaccination, said Spears, who specializes in the disorder. It is treatable and can cause involuntary movements that can look like symptoms caused by seizures, strokes, paralysis, speech problems, sensory changes, and more.
In January 2021, some videos circulated on social media at the time, purporting to show people having a bad medical reaction after getting the COVID vaccines. The Functional Neurological Disorders Society posted a press release that month, noting that many of the symptoms are in line with those of FND.
“We would expect FND to develop in some individuals after vaccination due to a combination of heightened stress owing to the pandemic, feelings of uncertainty about the vaccine and the normal transient physical symptoms, and discomfort after vaccination,” the release reads.