Lyme Disease: “The Great Imitator”
What You Should Know About This Sneaky Disease
If you've been having unexplainable fatigue, occasional flu-like symptoms, poor memory or concentration, a frequent sore throat, heart palpitations or pains, or various neurological problems, and your doctor has given you a diagnosis of “hypochondriasis,” you may not be a hypochondriac at all—you may have Lyme disease.
The symptoms of Lyme disease are so diverse that it is often misdiagnosed as a variety of other illnesses. These include Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and fibromyalgia, Alzheimer's disease, multiple sclerosis, autism, arthritis, depression and bipolar disorder. In fact, Lyme disease mimics the symptoms of so many modern illnesses that it's being called “The Great Imitator.”
The Great Miscalculation
Although Lyme disease is poorly understood and many people think “it doesn't affect me,” the disease is coming to the forefront as a serious health concern that is both overlooked, underreported, and close to home, no matter where you live. “Lyme disease is becoming prevalent across the United States and around the world—and not just in the places known to be problematic,” says Tara Nelson, ND, resident physician at Bastyr Center for Natural Health, the teaching clinic for Bastyr University.
The CDC estimates that the number of annually reported cases of Lyme disease has increased 33-fold since national surveillance began in 1982. It is the most common vectorborne infectious disease in the United States and has been reported in 48 of the 50 states as well as the District of Columbia. Yet, the most common test used to detect Lyme disease misses at least 35 percent of cases, and since physicians rarely think to test for it or report results to the Department of Health, the current count of people with Lyme disease is thought to be a gross underestimate.
A “Tick-y” Issue
So if Lyme disease is so prevalent, how do people get it? You may have heard that you get it from ticks, which is at least partially right. Lyme disease is a bacterial infection resulting from bacterium (Borrelia burgdorferi) that is often contained in ticks' gut contents and saliva. In the past, Lyme disease was thought to be spread only by deer ticks, but now it's known that you can get Lyme disease from other ticks, in utero or through a blood transfusion.
The bacteria is a spirochete—a spiral-shaped bacterium that can aggressively embed in muscles, tendons and even in the heart and brain. If recognized early, the bacteria can be easily treated with antibiotic medication. However, if the disease goes unrecognized and untreated, chronic conditions may ensue. Additionally, the bacteria depresses immune function and escapes recognition by the immune system, which creates a susceptibility to other infections.
Would you know if you had been bitten by an infected tick? Possibly not. Over half of people with Lyme disease don't recall ever being bitten by a tick or having any post-bite rash. This is partially because ticks can be smaller than a poppy seed, escaping detection.
A Holistic Approach to Beating Lyme
Treating Lyme disease is often difficult. Usually involving antibiotics, treatment can last weeks, months or years (depending whether it's a new or chronic infection). But it takes much more than antibiotics to treat Lyme disease effectively. An integrative, whole-body approach usually includes a wide range of natural and conventional treatments. “Because the disease affects the body so extensively, it is nearly impossible to get the infection and resulting symptoms under control unless you address the whole body's functioning,” says Nelson.
Most Lyme disease infections occur after exposure to infected ticks during property maintenance, recreational, or leisure activity at home, or during recreational activities such as hiking, camping, fishing, and hunting. A job that requires outdoor activity in areas where the disease is endemic may also increase your risk. To reduce your chances of infection, you can avoid endemic areas, use certain insecticide sprays such as DEET, wear clothing that covers your whole body, and check for ticks soon after being outdoors.
The good news is that not everyone bitten by an infected tick develops symptoms. On the flip side, a person may develop them much later, according to Nelson. The reason for this is not completely clear, but it does seem to point toward the importance of keeping your immunity strong and living a healthy lifestyle in mind, body and spirit. Eat a healthful diet, take immune-enhancing supplements, detoxify your body, exercise, take care of your mental and emotional health, and have a regular relaxation practice.
If you are concerned that you or someone you know may have Lyme disease, contact your state Lyme disease association for a referral to a Lyme-literate doctor near you. Early detection is key. For an integrative approach to treatment for Lyme disease, call to make an appointment at Bastyr Center at 206.834.4100.
Learn more about the services provided by Bastyr Center for Natural Health, or schedule your appointment today.
Author: Sydney Maupin, staff writer
Date: December 2005
Sources: International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society; Lyme Disease and Associated Disease Basics, by Douglas W. Fearn; Tara Nelson, ND; Centers for Disease Control; www.hsibaltimore.com/ealerts/ea200605/ea20060518.html; http://www.osha.gov/dts/shib/shib021103.html