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How is Lyme Disease Diagnosed?


A Summary of “Lyme Disease: Do We Have the Final Answers?” by Dr. Martha M. Grout

In an article published to Green Living magazine, Martha M. Grout, MD, MD(H) discusses the challenges of diagnosing and treating Lyme disease, which is contracted through the micro-organism known as Borrelia burgdorferi (Bb). Immediately after the identification of the disease in 1981, controversy rose about whether or not the disease actually existed. Doctors were disciplined, and still are today, for treating a “non-existent” illness.

Challenges of Diagnosing Lyme Disease

When a patient comes to his or her doctor with the “bull’s eye rash” that is known to be a characteristic of Lyme disease, the diagnosis is simple and treatment can begin immediately. However, in at least 40% of cases, no rash is present or identified. Additionally, some symptoms can mimic those of other viral infections, or even the flu, and can be misdiagnosed as such. In some cases, no abnormal symptoms appear or are recognized at all.

Common symptoms include:

  • Arthritis
  • Palpitations
  • Heart-rhythm abnormalities
  • Fatigue
  • Abdominal pain or bloating
  • Diarrhea
  • Brain fog
  • Memory problems

Why not test for Lyme disease? As recognizing the symptoms for what they are can be challenging, there is a “standard” method of testing for the diagnosis of Lyme, however, it has proven to be imperfect. Fewer than 50% of documented cases of Lyme disease have yielded positive test results, which means that a negative test does not always mean the patient is not infected.

The issue with the test involves two key problems. The first is that there are multiple species of Bb that can infect a patient, and the standard system only tests for a single, lab-cultured species. The second issue is with the patient’s own immune system: a Bb infection can severely impact the immune system’s ability to make antibodies, which is how the test recognizes the presence of the organism.

What does this mean for treatment of Lyme?

A lot of physicians will refuse to treat Lyme disease, either because of the ambiguity of the symptoms that are present or the clinical suspicion and likelihood of exposure. Treating Lyme with antibiotics may improve symptoms, but might not eradicate the infection altogether. A technique of immunotherapy is emerging for the treatment of chronic Lyme disease to allow the body to tolerate its own tissues, similar to standard allergy treatment.

Read the full article by Martha M. Grout, MD, MD(H) on Green Living magazine’s website.