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Lyme Disease: The Great Imitator
- Lyme disease has earned many names in the current medical environment. One of the most common titles it has is “The Great Imitator” as the condition is so complicated and can often be very difficult to diagnose.
- Although one of the most common symptoms associated with Lyme disease is a rash, the famous “bulls-eye” appearance is actually not very common.
- When not treated early, Lyme can lead to chronic problems. Unfortunately, diagnosing Lyme is very difficult. Not only are there a wide range of symptoms, but the tests are unreliable too. Many traditional Lyme tests look for antibodies, which might not be produced if spirochetes are hiding.
- Unfortunately, the number of Lyme disease cases are rising. Thousands of new Lyme disease cases are diagnosed every year, with over 300,000 in the US alone. Furthermore, the CDC predicts that the actual number of people with Lyme is much higher than numbers suggest.
- The early signs of Lyme can include flu-like symptoms, aches, and fatigue. Since many people may not even notice a tick bite, they often think they just have the flu, and don’t seek medical attention.
- More advanced symptoms of Lyme can include ongoing pain, nerve system problems, and Bell’s palsy. Some people will also suffer from inflammation in the eyes and liver.
- Chronic symptoms of Lyme can range from joint discomfort to memory loss. Lyme as a chronic condition has only recently been recognized by the CDC.
- The important thing to remember about Lyme is that it does not usually follow a set course. Patients can experience a range of symptoms beside the most typical ones. Signs can range all the way from personality changes to poor balance and swollen glands.
Introducing Lyme Disease: A Complex Condition
The symptoms of Lyme disease can be difficult to pinpoint. Many patients don’t follow a pre-set path like what you might see in other conditions. For instance, while some individuals might encounter flu-like problems like muscle aches, nausea, and sweating, others have rashes and facial drooping.
Perhaps one of the biggest misconceptions of Lyme diseases is that it can be easily diagnosed with a bull’s-eye rash. However, many people with this condition develop a different type of rash, or none at all. In fact, estimates of patients who develop rashes range between 30 and 80%. One CDC report on Lyme Carditis found that only 42% of cases began with a rash.
The problem with Lyme, is that if it’s not treated early, it can become a serious issue. Untreated Lyme can find a foothold in the body. This means that it is more difficult to remove the spirochetes, and more likely that Lyme becomes chronic. In one survey, patients with Lyme reported an average of three severe symptoms. Over 74% reported at least one severe, or very severe symptom.
So, why is diagnosing Lyme so difficult? Many symptoms, such as fatigue, joint pain, cognitive impairment and more, occur in other diseases. The symptoms of Lyme often overlap those of fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, and multiple sclerosis. In fact, there are so many diseases with similar symptoms to Lyme, that it can be difficult to tell which is which. Most Lyme patients are misdiagnosed at least once before being diagnosed with Lyme.
The Reason Behind the Name: “The Great Imitator”
It is the complex nature of identifying and treating Lyme that makes it “The Great Imitator”. Lyme is caused by a “spirochete”, or spiral-shaped bacteria. It is often times transmitted through certain species of black-legged ticks. The immature form of the tick is the cause behind most human cases.
Because a tick bite is often painless, most people don’t realize they have been bitten. Ticks also harbor a range of additional illnesses that can worsen Lyme. In fact, numerous co-infections such as Babesiosis, Tularemia, and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever can worsen the condition. The bacterium of Lyme can enter the brain less than 24 hours after the tick bite. The disease also affects multiple areas of the body and symptoms may not even appear until a few weeks after a person is bitten.
As mentioned above, one commonly-recognized symptom of Lyme is an erythema Migrans. The Erythema Migrans is the bulls-eyes rash that occurs in about half of cases. This rash can appear anywhere on the body, not solely where there has been a bite. Additionally, the rash might expand over several days. However, just because a patient does not see a rash, does not mean that the disease is not present.
The symptoms of Lyme disease are so varied that a diagnosis is tough to pin down. As “The Great Imitator”, Lyme can mimic the symptoms of some 350 diseases, including but not limited to:
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
The disease is complex enough to impact multiple organs all over the body. In the early stages, symptoms can be small, including flu-like symptoms. Some people will suffer from a stiff neck, fatigue, or joint pain. As the disease progresses, the symptoms may progress with it, causing nerve symptoms and arthritis.
Lyme disease can also affect the brain and nervous system. It has been known to cause Bell’s palsy, poor coordination, and memory loss. Sleeping habits and mood can be affected, and some sufferers struggle with dizziness and severe fatigue.
The Untold Story of Lyme Disease
Documented rates of Lyme disease are escalating at a fast pace among animals and humans alike. Part of the reason for this might be linked to the fact that more people are learning about Lyme. However, the rise of the incidence of Lyme may also be linked to a range of factors, such as environmental issues and dietary problems.
Lyme disease is known today as the most common vector-borne US disease. It is more common to the average American than the West Nile virus. The CDC reported an estimated 329,000 people are diagnosed with Lyme in the US alone each year. Though this number seems high, most experts believe that it’s actually a gross underestimation. After all, this number comes from the people who are correctly diagnosed.
According to the CDC, the real number of Lyme diseases cases in the US may be up to 12 times higher than we think. This means that Lyme would be more prevalent than AIDS. Since surveillance began in 1982, the number of annually reported Lyme disease cases has grown by 25-fold.
For those who may not know much about Lyme disease, it was named after the town called Lyme in the state of Connecticut. The name was given because Lyme was first discovered in this East Coast town in 1975. The disease was first regarded as “Lyme Arthritis” because it features arthritic symptoms. By the time 1977 arrived, the black-legged tick had been identified as one method for transmitting the disease.
In 1982, a doctor called Willy Burgdorfer, uncovered the bacterium behind Lyme. He introduced the world to Borrelia burgdoferi, a bacterium in the spirochete class which has been proven to cause Lyme disease.
We know now that there are five sub-species of Borrelia burgdoferi. There are also more than 100 strains in the U.S., and 300 worldwide. Many of these species have developed resistance to our antibiotics. While many still attribute transmissions of the disease to ticks, this is not necessarily the case. A leading authority on Lyme, Dr. Dietrich Klinghardt, found that Lyme can be spread by fleas, mites, and spiders. There is also evidence that other animals can carry and transmit Lyme disease as well.
The variety of creatures capable of spreading Lyme disease may be part of the reason why so few sufferers recall a tick bite. There is also some evidence that Lyme could be spread congenitally and sexually.
Identifying Borrelia Burgdorferi
As we mentioned previously, Borrelia burgdorferi is a spirochete. It is a cousin to the bacterium that is responsible for syphilis. Under a microscope, the two bacteria look almost the same. The corkscrew shape of Borrelia burgdorferi allows it to burrow into and hide in the body’s tissues. This is why it causes such a wide range of multi-system symptoms.
Interestingly, many Lyme patients who battle the disease chronically may appear healthy. For the most part, people with chronic Lyme may appear to see very few symptoms. It is the lack of obvious symptoms that has prompted Lyme to be caused the “invisible illness”. This is yet another common title alongside the “Great imitator”.
The fact that Borrelia burgdoferi can hide so well is another factor contributing to the difficulty of diagnosing Lyme. People who have these bacteria might not be able to show signs of it in their blood work. Since the signs of Lyme disease are so vague, diagnosis is difficult enough without testing problems to think about. If you do not have the characteristic Lyme disease “bulls-eye” rash, your doctor is likely to ask several questions, followed by a physical exam.
The standard testing methods for Lyme disease involve a two-pronged approach. These two prongs include an ELISA test, and western-blot test. Unfortunately, the ELISA test is used to identify antibodies for the Borrelia burgdorferi pathogen. Unfortunately, because the Lyme disease bacteria can hide under biofilms and within tissues, your system might not know to release antibodies. If your immune system doesn’t know to fight back against Lyme, then the test will not show Lyme in the body.
Only when the ELISA test is found to be positive is a Western Blot test suggested to be performed. Once again, the aim here is to detect antibodies for proteins in Borrelia burgdorferi. Today, new testing solutions are being confirmed that might help to pinpoint new co-infections and Lyme disease. For instance, IGeneX testing kits include indirect and direct testing. While indirect tests examine the response of an immune system to the presence of Lyme, direct tests look for antigens and nucleic acids.
Lyme panels can also be used for testing. These panels test for the four different genes commonly found in Borrelia burgdorferi. It also tests for the eight most common co-infections. If the test reveals some of the co-infections associated with Lyme, it implies that Lyme may be present too. However, a lack of positive result from Lyme panels does not always indicate lack of infection.
Rather, in the case of a negative Lyme panel, the indication is an absence of tick-borne co-infections. In some cases, the patient’s ability to fight a disease, the presence of biofilms, and antibiotic courses can all impact the detectability of spirochetes.
The Early Symptoms of Lyme Disease
Lyme disease does not always follow a strict path of symptoms. However, when symptoms are present, they can include a range of different issues that are difficult for doctors to fully diagnose. For instance, infection with Lyme disease bacteria can lead to early symptoms like headaches, fatigue, skin rashes, and joint pain.
Alternatively, long-term symptoms can lead to more worrisome problems related to the nervous system, brain, heart, and joints. The issue is that symptoms vary for everyone and can change in intensity throughout the course of the disease.
The most well-known symptom of Lyme is the rash that looks like a bullseye. However, this is only present among some patients. Some people find that the rash starts around the tick bite. Others find that it appears in other areas of the body, and does not share the bulls-eye appearance.
Some of early symptoms of Lyme disease might include:
- Muscle Aches
- Flu symptoms
The symptoms for Lyme disease typically begin anywhere between three and thirty days following infection. Additionally, this initial incubation period can cause some confusion regarding symptoms. As many people do not remember being bitten, they often believe they have the flu, and therefore avoid seeking medical help.
The important thing to remember here is that a lack of rash, or other common symptoms should not dissuade you from testing for Lyme disease. Lyme can present in a range of different ways, and the faster it can be detected, the more likely an effective treatment will be.
The Advanced Symptoms of Lyme Disease
Because Lyme disease so frequently goes undiagnosed, advanced symptoms are common. These advanced symptoms can include joint pain, particularly located around the knees. You might also experience a stiff neck in the early-to-mid symptom range. Stiffness can also occur several months after your tick bite.
Lyme disease that is not treated for a period of months can cause serious problems. For instance, after a period of time, you may begin to see issues in the nervous system. A common neurological symptom that can occur at any stage in the infection is Bell’s palsy. Bell’s palsy is the loss of muscle function in the face. People with this condition usually look like they might have had a stroke because they are not able move the muscles on one side of their face.
Additionally, movement problems can be common in the arms and legs. Heart problems and inflammation around the eyes and liver are rare complications. However, these issues can also be prevalent in people with Lyme.
Chronic Symptoms of Lyme Disease
The chronic symptoms of Lyme disease are perhaps some of the most wide-spread. Some people experience chronic conditions for months and even years. Although bacteria might have been eliminated from the body after treatment, the toxins and symptoms of Lyme can linger. These symptoms might include:
- Short and long-term memory problems
- Headaches and pains
- Joint discomfort
- Muscle aches
- On-going pain
The CDC has only recently recognized chronic Lyme disease as a condition. In part, this is because doctors do not fully understand why Lyme happens on a chronic level. Some experts believe that chronic Lyme happens when Lyme disease causes serious damage to the immune system and bodily tissues. This could cause symptoms to occur after the disease leaves the person’s body.
Others believe that chronic Lyme happens because of the biofilms that keep spirochetes in the body. Because the spirochetes can hide underneath the biofilms, they can linger in the system even as the rest of the Lyme is eradicated by antibiotics. In other words, this means that to get rid of Lyme, you must first get rid of biofilms.
There are More Symptoms to Lyme Disease than You Might Think
The most important thing to remember about Lyme disease, is that it does not follow the same course in all individuals. Clinically, patients might experience a range of different ailments alongside Lyme that complicate their symptoms, and lead to additional problems. Just some of the symptoms that can be indicative of Lyme disease include:
- Unexplained sweats, chills, and fevers
- Shortness of breath or coughing
- Cystitis or inflammation in the bladder
- Chest pain and heart problems
- Double vision or blurry vision
- Hair loss
- Rash at bite area
- Problems with swallowing
- Swollen glands
- Sore throat
- Swelling around the eyes
- Unexplained weight gain or loss
- Difficulty eating
- Vomiting and nausea
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Joint pain and swelling
- Eyelid/facial twitching
- Irritable bladder syndrome
- Muscle pain
- Back stiffness
- Pelvis pain
- Jaw pain
- Abdominal cramping
- Seizure activity
- Mood swings
- Personality Changes
- Poor balance
- Tingling or numbness
- Menstrual irregularity
- Trouble speaking
- Loss of libido
- Difficulty concentrating