Have you ever spotted a distinctive bullseye rash on your skin after spending time outdoors or going camping? Lyme disease often begins with such a rash and can progress into a complex condition that impacts multiple organ systems and presents a variety of symptoms. The incidence of Lyme disease in the United States has approximately doubled since 1991, increasing from 3.74 reported cases per 100,000 people to 7.95 reported cases per 100,000 people in 2014.
Regular lab testing is an essential component of effective Lyme disease management, as it allows healthcare providers to monitor organ function and gauge the effectiveness of treatment. In this article, we will discuss what Lyme disease is, its various symptoms, and the importance of regular lab tests for optimal patient management.
What is Lyme Disease?
Lyme disease is a common tick-borne infection in the United States and is increasingly recognized worldwide. The condition is caused by the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria, which is transmitted through the bite of an infected black-legged tick. The disease presents in three progressive stages, each with its own set of symptoms. In the early localized stage, individuals often notice an expanding, ring-shaped red rash known as Erythema migrans at the site of the tick bite.
Along with the rash, people may also experience symptoms that resemble the flu, including fatigue, headaches, fever, muscle aches, and joint pain. Although most individuals only go through the symptoms of this initial stage, approximately one in five may progress to the early disseminated stage, which may include multiple Erythema migrans rashes and a range of other symptoms like swollen lymph nodes, severe joint pain, and even neurological conditions such as cranial nerve palsies (2,3)
Diagnosis of Lyme disease can be a complex process, particularly because patients often do not remember being bitten by a tick. This makes identification and early treatment somewhat challenging. However, in areas where Lyme disease is common, clinicians may initiate treatment based on the appearance of the characteristic rash, even before confirming the diagnosis with blood tests. This proactive approach is important because timely treatment is essential for preventing progression to more severe stages of the disease, which may include cardiac issues like myocarditis and pericarditis or late-stage symptoms like arthritis, particularly affecting large joints like the knees (2,3).
What Causes Lyme Disease?
In the United States, Lyme disease is primarily caused by a specific type of bacteria called Borrelia burgdorferi. This bacteria is transmitted to humans through the bite of a tick from the Ixodes genus, most commonly Ixodes scapularis. In Eurasia, there are additional bacterial strains responsible for Lyme disease, including Borrelia afzelii and Borrelia garinii (2,3).
Each of these bacterial strains has a particular affinity for different tissues in the body. For example, B. burgdorferi tends to target the joints, while B. afzelii has a preference for the skin and is commonly found at the site of infection. B. garinii, which is mainly found in Europe, is known for its proclivity to cause white matter encephalitis, a condition affecting the brain.
The transmission process begins when an infected Ixodes tick bites a human or animal. During the feeding process, the bacteria residing in the tick's salivary glands are transferred into the host's bloodstream, initiating the infection (2,3).
Environmental factors also play a significant role in the risk of acquiring Lyme disease. Residing in or visiting wooded areas or places with tall grasses and abundant vegetation increases the likelihood of tick exposure. Activities that bring people into these environments, such as hiking, camping, and gardening, similarly elevate the risk of coming into contact with infected ticks.
Geographic location is another key factor in the transmission of Lyme disease. In the United States, the disease is most frequently reported in the Northeastern, Mid-Atlantic, and North-Central regions. Therefore, residents or visitors in these areas should be particularly cautious and take preventive measures to reduce the risk of tick bites (2,3).
Lyme Disease Symptoms
Lyme disease typically progresses through three stages: early localized disease, early disseminated disease, and late disseminated disease. Each stage has its own set of symptoms, which can vary widely and overlap (2,3):
Stage 1: Early Localized Disease
- Generally occurs within 1 to 28 days after the tick bite
- Most commonly presents with erythema migrans (a specific type of rash) and low-grade fever
- Some people experience flu-like symptoms, including body aches and headaches
Stage 2: Early Disseminated Disease
- Develops usually 3 to 12 weeks after initial infection
- May include symptoms from stage 1 and additional symptoms like:
- General malaise
- Neurological issues (headaches, dizziness)
- Cardiac symptoms (chest pain, palpitations)
- Joint involvement, often mistaken for septic arthritis
- Neurological involvement, including encephalopathy and Bell palsy
Stage 3: Late Disseminated Disease
- May occur many months or even years after the initial infection
- Predominantly characterized by:
- Neurological and rheumatological involvement
- Arthritis, commonly affecting the knee
- Cognitive deficits
- Some cases present with skin conditions like acrodermatitis chronica atrophicans
What Are The Benefits of Regular Lab Testing For Patients With Lyme Disease?
Regular lab testing can be valuable for patients with Lyme disease for a variety of reasons. Firstly, this disease often presents with symptoms that can mimic other medical conditions, which complicates diagnosis and treatment. Bi-annual laboratory tests offer a structured framework for monitoring the progression of the disease and the effectiveness of treatment regimens. Identification of any changes in markers or symptoms can lead to adjustments in treatment, thus optimizing patient outcomes. For instance, testing can help providers differentiate between the various stages of the disease, potentially preventing the progression to more severe forms of Lyme disease that can affect the heart, joints, and nervous system (2,3).
Secondly, Lyme disease is notorious for co-infections with other tick-borne pathogens. Regular lab tests can not only confirm the presence of co-infections but also evaluate the body's response to ongoing treatment for these additional diseases. Given that each co-infecting pathogen may require a different treatment approach, periodic lab evaluations can provide clinicians with critical data to tailor therapy appropriately (2,3).
Top Labs To Run Bi-Annually On Patients With Lyme Disease
Functional medicine labs offer a variety of tests that can help tailor treatment to patient needs, allowing providers to optimize management strategies.
Liver and Kidney Function Testing
Given the connection between gut health and immune function, understanding the balance of gut flora is valuable in treating diseases that impact multiple organ systems. Regular testing can aid in modifying treatment protocols to better suit individual needs.
Chronic inflammation often accompanies conditions like Lyme disease, complicating treatment and symptom management. Periodic measurement of inflammatory markers can guide treatment adjustments and indicate the effectiveness of therapeutic strategies (2,3).
Additional Lab Tests
In summary, Lyme disease is a multi-faceted condition that has been on the rise, affecting an increasing number of people in various regions. Its complexity and potential for co-infections make timely diagnosis and effective treatment imperative. Regular bi-annual lab testing offers invaluable insights into organ function, nutritional status, and inflammation levels, allowing for a more tailored treatment approach. Through comprehensive lab evaluations, healthcare providers can proactively manage the disease, adjust treatments as needed, and improve patient outcomes.
Lab Tests in This Article
- Lyme Disease. (2016). EPA. Retrieved September 11, 2023, from https://www.epa.gov/sites/default/files/2017-02/documents/print_lyme_2016.pdf
- A Functional Medicine Acute Lyme Disease Protocol: Testing, Diagnosing, and Treatment. (2023, May 16). Rupa Health. https://www.rupahealth.com/post/a-functional-medicine-acute-lyme-disease-protocol
- Skar, G. L. (2023, May 31). Lyme Disease. StatPearls - NCBI Bookshelf. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK431066/
- Lyme disease - Symptoms and causes - Mayo Clinic. (2023, February 10). Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/lyme-disease/symptoms-causes/syc-20374651
- Horowitz, H. W., Dworkin, B. M., Forseter, G., Nadelman, R. B., Connolly, C. E., Luciano, B. B., Nowakowski, J., O’Brien, T., Calmann, M., & Wormser, G. P. (1996, June 1). Liver function in early Lyme disease. Hepatology; Wiley. https://doi.org/10.1002/hep.510230617
- Drake, C., Coyne, M. J., McCrann, D. J., Buch, J., & Mack, R. (2021, March 1). Risk of Development of Chronic Kidney Disease After Exposure to Borrelia burgdorferi and Anaplasma spp. Topics in Companion Animal Medicine; Elsevier BV. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tcam.2020.100491
- A Functional Medicine Immune Support Protocol. (2023). Rupa Health. Retrieved September 11, 2023, from https://www.rupahealth.com/post/a-functional-medicine-immune-support-protocol
- Boosting Your Patient’s Immunity Through Gut Health: Testing, Nutrition and Supplements. (2023). Rupa Health. Retrieved September 11, 2023, from https://www.rupahealth.com/post/the-gut-microbiome-and-immunity-how-integrative-approaches-can-boost-immune-function