It’s hard not to be a bit worried when you read about the dramatic increase in Lyme disease. This year, new cases are up 350% in New England and 250% in the North Central states. If you’re geographically impaired, click on that link to discover that North Central means us. Surveys taken of physicians show they’re testing patients more frequently than ever, and since positive test results are automatically reported to local health boards, Lyme numbers are relentlessly rising.
It’s called Lyme disease for convenience. Named after Old Lyme, Connecticut, where the disease was first reported in1975, we now know Lyme is just one of several deer tick-transmitted illnesses. The most common illness is caused by an organism called Borrelia burgdorferi, but a second and more dangerous strain, Borrelia miyamotoi, is also on the rise. Importantly, that same tick bite can infect you with bugs you’ve likely never heard of, those with names like Babesia, Erlichia, and Anaplasma.
Here are some important Lyme basics to protect you and your family:
- Lyme is transmitted only by tick bites. You can’t catch it from another person. However, you can get Lyme from an infected tick brought indoors on a dog or person.
- Lyme is caused by the childhood (immature) form of black-legged deer ticks, which are quite tiny. If you see one biting you, remove it promptly with tweezers and put it into a jar to show your doctor. Keep in mind that many people with Lyme disease don’t remember being bitten.
- The well-known bull’s eye rash appears in about 70% of cases, which means no rash in 30%.
- Acute Lyme disease, which starts appearing one week after the bite, is like a really bad case of the flu: fever, joint pain, muscle aches, severe fatigue, and headache. The blood test for Lyme doesn’t become positive until four weeks into the infection. So if the test is taken too early, the diagnosis will be missed. Therefore, developing a flulike illness after returning from an area where ticks are a possibility–even if you don’t remember a tick bite or didn’t develop a rash–is reason enough for most doctors to start you on antibiotics.
- Chronic Lyme disease, also called post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome, is an umbrella term for anyone with a wide variety of chronic and seemingly unrelated symptoms (including widespread muscle pain, profound fatigue, and brain fog) who, despite normal test results, shows evidence of having had one or more of the tick-borne illnesses in the past. Currently, doctors are uncertain whether these symptoms are caused by a residual Lyme infection deep in the sufferer’s tissues or by a “hit-and-run” phenomenon in which the infection itself is gone but the body continues to struggle against the damage it caused.
- Tunnel-vision physicians who haven’t kept current with recent medical developments may consider chronic Lyme controversial or non-existent. If you hear “There’s no such thing as chronic Lyme” from a doctor, ask “What about post-infectious Lyme syndrome?” If he/she looks puzzled or irritable, I suggest finding a new and more knowledgeable doctor.
- The treatment of chronic Lyme (or post-infectious Lyme syndrome) is twofold. First, an antibiotic regimen to completely clear the body of any residual infection. Second, detoxification plus nutritional and, if needed, psychological therapies to heal the damage from the protracted infection.
In response to what’s clearly an epidemic of Lyme and related tick-borne illnesses, WholeHealth Chicago physician Casey Kelley, MD, has taken her interest in Lyme disease and developed it into the mainstay of her practice. She regularly attends postgraduate seminars on the latest developments in the diagnosis and treatment of acute and chronic Lyme and its associated diseases and numerous complications. She’s a member of the International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society, a professional group dedicated to advancing the care of people with Lyme throughout the world.
Due to the complexity of chronic Lyme, Dr. Kelley schedules new Lyme patients for a two-hour initial evaluation, with one-hour follow up visits. Because there are only so many hours in a workday, and because there are so many patients with chronic Lyme, she’s initiating small-group sessions for her established Lyme patients.
Dr Kelley is calling this her Lyme Academy.
Lyme Academy consists of four weekly sessions, each 1 ½ to 2 hours long, during which patients learn different strategies for treatment (medications, natural/alternative therapies) and lifestyle changes to maximize prompt recovery. Because everyone at Lyme Academy is in the same boat, there’s an opportunity to exchange information and tactics for thriving despite having this chronic illness.
In health insurance lingo, these evening sessions are classified as “brief physician visits.” They can be billed to your insurance company, the cost to you being your routine co-pay or out-of-network benefit.
You can read Dr. Kelley’s letter to her Lyme patients here.
Personally, I’m not quite sure which is more dangerous these days, a peaceful walk in the Lyme-infested woods or city life, with more than 20 shootings last weekend in Chicago. You need either a bulletproof vest or long sleeves and DEET to survive.
David Edelberg, MD