Lyme disease on its own can be a devastating prospect, potentially setting up patients for a life of chronic symptoms. One area that has been critically understudied is the neurological effect that Lyme might have on patients. These neurological symptoms don’t seem to affect everyone who suffers from chronic Lyme, but like many things to do with the disease, this is a grey area that requires more definite research. Neurological symptoms can be some of the most unnerving for many patients, and can potentially have the most dire consequences. The general term for brain damage, disease or disorientation is encephalopathy. So can Lyme disease cause encephalopathy? And if so, what can we do it about it?
First, let’s define the two separate conditions and then look towards their potential linkage. Lyme disease is a disorder spread through ticks. It’s caused by the Borrelia strain of bacteria, which is transmitted into the bloodstream via infected ticks. Contrary to popular opinion, Lyme is not an American disease, nor is it geographically locked to one particular region. Lyme disease patients have been found in their hundreds of thousands the world over. Numbers are continuing to rise every year, and the only continent where you can’t contract Lyme disease is Antarctica. In addition, global warming is ensuring that ticks live longer than usual, making people more susceptible to them outside the traditional tick season (May to September).
Lyme disease comes in two distinct forms: the acute form and chronic form. Immediately after a bite where Borrelia is transferred, the acute stage will kick in. The symptoms of acute Lyme present a lot like the flu, which explains why it is so often missed by patients and doctors alike. The only concrete indicator of Lyme is a bullseye rash, which forms around the site of the bite, taking the shape of a red ring encircling a red dot. Unfortunately, this too is easily missed if the initial bite isn’t noticed, and doesn’t form in every case of Lyme disease, leaving some patients adrift. Although Lyme is undoubtedly a severe disease, the flu-like symptoms are often milder than you might think; again, this contributes to the problem being ignored or going unrecognised, until it is too late.
‘Too late’ in Lyme’s case is when the disease evolves to the chronic form. This may take a few weeks, months or even years from the initial acute symptoms, but chronic Lyme will emerge in some form or another if the disease is left to its own devices. The symptoms of late-stage Lyme disease are disparate and generalised, making it hard to both diagnose and treat. One person may respond to the disease completely differently than another. This is because chronic Lyme incorporates not only infection symptoms but inflammation ones as well. Faced with bacteria it can’t quite seem to kill, the immune system responds by kicking into overdrive, resulting in chronic inflammation (especially around the joints) and a constant drain on the body that results in severe fatigue.
Lyme disease treatment plans are usually complex and involve tackling the inflammation and infection issues simultaneously. BCA-clinic are Lyme experts based in Germany; their approach, though tailored specifically for each individual patient, involves nutrition-based treatment for inflammation combined with antibiotic plans for the infection. Both must be tackled at the same time for the patient to have any hope of recovery, as any trace of infection can easily reignite the aggressive inflammation symptoms. But what about the neurological aspects? Can Lyme disease cause encephalopathy, and can Borrelia be counted among the causes of encephalopathy?
Encephalopathy doesn’t describe a specific condition, but rather provides a blanket term for an altered mental condition. The stimulus for this change can come from either inside or outside the body and may include a variety of different things, including metabolic changes, infections, drugs, trauma and anoxia. This means that it can essentially be a product of many different disorders, with Lyme most certainly counted among them. Lyme causing neurological impairments is nothing new for Lyme-literate doctors; patients often complain of memory impairment and loss, brain fog, cognition impairment, difficulty concentrating and fatigue. An experiment from 1997 posited that patients with abnormal cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) might be more at risk for neurological symptoms, but regardless, all Lyme disease patients participating in the test complained of memory loss and depressive tendencies in contrast to the control group.
It is estimated that around 5–20% of Lyme disease patients report neurological symptoms, but the number is likely far higher when misdiagnosis and non-reporting is taken into account. These symptoms are caused when the blood-brain barrier is breached by Borrelia spirochetes, and can be identified by the presence of specific antibodies in the CSF. If you’re concerned about any neurological symptoms you might be suffering, make sure to get to a Lyme-literate doctor as soon as possible. Chronic Lyme is a highly nuanced disorder that requires an expert’s attention; it is vitally important to treat all manifestations of it simultaneously. Encephalopathy is just one of these manifestations, but certainly one of the more serious.