Contrary to popular belief, Lyme disease is not limited to the northeastern United States, but is seen in every state across the country. It is often called "the great imitator" because Lyme can mimic virtually any disease, including multiple sclerosis, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, bipolar disorder, Alzheimer's disease, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease), just to name a few.
What is Lyme Disease?
Lyme disease is a bacterial infection caused by a spirochete, or corkscrew-shaped bacteria, called Borrelia burgdorferi. The disease affects multiple areas of the body, with symptoms appearing within one to two weeks after being bitten. A commonly recognized sign of an initial Lyme disease infection is an erythema migrans (EM) or "bulls-eye" rash, but this rash may appear in only about half of the cases. Patients who do experience this rash may see it on any area of the body, not just where the tick was attached, and the rash may gradually expand over a period of several days, potentially reaching up to 12 inches across. But just because a patient does not see a rash does not mean that Lyme disease is not present.
How is Lyme Disease Transmitted?
Lyme disease is most commonly transmitted through the bit of a tick, but it also may be carried by mosquitos and biting flies. Unfortunately, many people who are bitten by ticks carrying Lyme disease never even see the tick. Ticks are most likely to transmit Lyme disease during the nymphal stage, when they are immature and as small as poppy seeds. Even when fully engorged with blood, nymphal ticks are smaller than the head of a pin. Both nymphal and adult ticks can transmit Lyme disease.
Symptoms of Lyme Disease
Lyme disease is a complex disease that can affect multiple body systems. In its early stages, patients may experience flu-like systems, including chills, fever, swollen lymph nodes, headaches, muscle aches, joint pain, fatigue, and a stiff neck. As the disease progresses, patients may see nerve problems and arthritis, most commonly in the knees.
Lyme disease can also affect the nervous system, causing symptoms such as meningitis, Bell's palsy, pain or weakness in the limbs, or poor coordination. Memory function can also be affected, as can mood or sleeping habits. Lyme disease can also cause symptoms such as an irregular heartbeat, shortness of breath, dizziness, and severe fatigue.
If Lyme disease is not diagnosed and properly treated, the disease can invade multiple organs, including the brain and nervous system. Patients can become increasingly disabled over time. Patients with chronic Lyme disease complain of unusual symptoms that often cannot be explained or properly diagnosed, leading doctors to often tell them their illness is psychological in nature.
Because the disease is so complex, and symptoms are similar to so many illnesses, Lyme disease is often misdiagnosed. Thus, patients who are being treated for other illnesses without success, such as hypothyroidism, chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia, should consider Lyme disease as a possible cause.
What Tests do I Need?
A number of lab tests can be done to determine if a patient has Lyme disease, including the Western Blot and the ELISA test. But even if a patient is tested, standard testing will miss more than 90% of chronic Lyme cases. It is important to note, too, that standard Lyme disease tests are not reliable in the first few weeks following infection, because the patient's immune system has not yet produced enough antibodies to be detected by lab tests. Additionally, proper interpretation of lab tests require that physicians have adequate understanding and specialized training on the test, the stage of illness, and the likelihood that the patient has the disease, which many doctors do not have.
The latest in Lyme testing is a newly developed and validated Lyme culture test created by Dr. Joseph Burrascano, a renowned Lyme disease specialist. Most lab tests look for the body's response to the to the infection, or production of antibodies. The Lyme culture tests, in contrast, actually allows the Lyme bacteria to be grown outside the body in cultures, something that has not been capable until very recently. The new Lyme culture tests not only can help diagnose new cases of Lyme disease, but also can prove that lingering symptoms of Lyme disease are not due to post-Lyme syndrome, as some doctors may presume, but instead are due to the presence of active Lyme disease that has been inadequately treated.
What are my Treatment Options?
Treatment of Lyme disease can be a challenge because the Borrelia bacteria can change form from the standard cell wall form into a non-cell wall form, as well as into a treatment resistant cyst form. A multi-system. Integrative approach is necessary to increase the likelihood of successful treatment. Not only must the Lyme bacteria be addressed, but treatment should also target possible co-infections such as Babesia, a malaria-like illness caused by a parasite that is transmitted by the same tick that transmits Lyme disease. Patients with Lyme disease will often suffer from a weakened immune system, as well as viruses such as Epstein Barr, Cytomegalovirus, and HHV6, and co-infections such as ehrlichiosis, chlamydia pneumonia, mycoplasma pneumonia, and candida. A multi-system approach will include a combination of synergistic antibiotics, antivirals, nutritional supplements, hormonal therapies, anticoagulants, and other therapies.
Even with treatment, long-term recovery varies from patient to patient. Those who have chronic Lyme disease often have lingering symptoms that remain long after treatment is completed. Chronic Lyme disease can bring symptoms such as severe fatigue that can be prolonged and debilitating. Lyme fatigue is much more severe that simply being tired from overexertion. Instead, it brings a profound exhaustion similar to chronic fatigue syndrome, significantly worse that what is typical in other illnesses.
Recovery is Possible
The possibility of Lyme disease becoming a chronic condition gives a clear incentive to treat Lyme disease early and adequately. A multi-system, integrative approach can greatly increase the chance of successful treatment. This includes a combination of synergistic antibiotics to attack the Lyme bacteria in all of its three stages, as well as immune modulators, anti-Lyme supplements, anti-coagulants when necessary, hormonal therapies, and other medications that can increase the effectiveness and penetration of the antibiotics against the Borrelia bacteria and other infections.
With the right testing, an integrated treatment approach and a commitment to regaining your health, recovery from Lyme disease is possible.