Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Chronic Lyme Disease Journey 101

As I mentioned in my last post, I'd just recently been doing a lot of research about Chronic Lyme Disease.  What started it all was a very detailed web page about Lyme that I'd stumbled into while recuperating from what I still am unsure hit me a couple of weekends ago.  I don't remember exactly how I found it, but knowing me, while I was suffering, I was probably searching on my smartphone for possible causes of my odd symptoms and clues about whether or not a doctor visit was warranted over it.

I have known about Chronic Lyme Disease and it's possible ties to Fibromyalgia and other mysterious illnesses only because a friend of mine told me of her successful battle with Lyme after first being diagnosed with Fibromyalgia.  As you savvy readers may already be aware, Fibromyalgia is not technically a "disease" - it is merely a syndrome, a collection of symptoms.  Fibromites like us have a large collection of systemic symptoms and the medical community has only gotten as far as giving the collection a name.  There is no known cause or cure for these symptoms, so our care pretty much consists of treatment of the symptoms that are most disruptive.  Treatments rarely improve things for most of us and, actually, many of us seem to worsen over time, despite our adherence to treatment regimens and habits.  Why?  "Nobody knows."  Or so they claim.

Increasingly, I'm becoming more and more aware of the complex world of Chronic Lyme Disease.  There is lots of information available out there from people who want to help spread awareness and knowledge, but there is also conflicting and misleading information, as well.  Sorting through it all can be confusing and disheartening, but knowing someone who has been through it, though, gives me a bit more confidence in finding the right information and making smarter decisions about it all.

First, I'll go over some of the very basics.  (I'm new to this, so please forgive me if it turns out I've misstated anything, but definitely correct me in the comments so I know.  Any supporting information via links would also be helpful.)

Lyme Disease is a bacterial infection that is carried by ticks and spreads to humans through tick-bites.  It seems the bacteria can cross from a mother to her baby during pregnancy as well.  If a person notices a tick bite, possibly that characteristic bulls-eye rash, and a rapid-onset illness, that person can likely be cured of the acute infection with a few weeks of antibiotics and be done with the entire thing.

What I'm learning about, and what is controversial in the medical community, is Chronic Lyme Disease.  This is when that same bacteria remains in a person's body for a long time, untreated and possibly unnoticed.  It may be dormant or latent, or may be affecting the person very slowly over years, so the person never associates any of his or her health effects with anything to do with Lyme or tick bites or even infection.  Tests for various illnesses usually come back negative, though the person continues to suffer new and worsening symptoms.  (Sound familiar, fibromites?)  Depending on where the infection decides to spread in the person's body, symptoms can vary.  Some organs may suffer more symptoms than others.  The skin, blood, bones, or brain can be affected, among all the other areas of the body.  Needless to say, infections that live in a person's body can do some nasty things to that person.

The controversy is perhaps a bit too complex for me to sum up here, but this bacterium is difficult to study and requires a researcher or doctor to dedicate quite a lot of time and effort to learning about it in order to understand it sufficiently to diagnose it in a person, and treat it effectively.  It can be hard to recognize and many undertrained doctors will miss it or flat out claim there is no infection present.  Another reason for this problem is that the testing that is currently available for detecting Lyme infection or the antibodies to it, are notoriously inaccurate.  False negatives and false positives are common, and most doctors don't realize this.  They might test, see a negative, and quash any further investigation into a Lyme infection possibility whether accurate or not.  This is obviously a problem.

The problem is bigger than most people realize, too.  The ticks that carry this disease used to be thought only to live in certain areas of the eastern United States, and perhaps a small area in Wisconsin.  As specialists continue to collect tick samples from various areas and check them for Lyme, it has become apparent that Lyme is spreading as these ticks are being opportunistic about surviving while other species that may have kept their populations in check are dying off.  It's reaching a lot of areas previously thought to not have any Lyme.  You can't always go by where people live, either.  These days, a lot of us travel frequently and all it takes is one, unlucky tick bite to become infected.  It could happen in one day-trip.  This is not just some rare disease anymore.  It's becoming a silent epidemic and ignorant doctors are inadvertently allowing it to continue to afflict their patients.

Personally, I have not been tested for Lyme Disease (yet).  I have brought it up to my most recent Neurologist, who served as my Fibromyalgia specialist.  The conversation went something like this.  
Me: I'm interested in ruling out other illnesses that seem similar to Fibromyalgia, like Lupus or Lyme.  Can we do some testing for those, for my peace of mind?
Doctor: We can test you for Lupus with an ANA.  I don't think you need to worry about Lyme.  That's only for people who live on the east coast.
Me: Are you sure?  I've traveled to North Carolina a few times, and I have been to Wisconsin woodlands numerous times.  I may have picked up a tick and not known it.
Doctor: Have you ever had the bulls-eye rash?
Me: I don't think so.
Doctor: Don't worry about it.  You don't have Lyme.
(The ANA came back negative, by the way.)

I also visited an infectious disease specialist all the way in downtown Chicago at a prestigious hospital, hoping for someone to take me seriously and just check me for anything my other doctors may have missed.  I basically got the same treatment when I brought up Lyme Disease (except he abandoned me when he got a phone call near the end of our appointment and just never returned).

Since these incidents about a year ago, I haven't thought about Lyme much at all.  In fact, I didn't really think much about it then.  I just wanted something better than a Fibromyalgia, dead-end diagnosis to work with, and since my friend turned out to have it, I thought I should get checked out, but I didn't think it was much of a possibility for me.  When I got dismissed by the doctors for bringing it up, I kind of abandoned the possibility and started to try to accept not knowing how or why I got ill and just deal with it as best as I can.

Then that web page I mentioned earlier in this post caught my attention and kind of hit me in the head with the details.  I was looking for details and was curious to learn about Lyme.  Although it's now old (2004), I am far behind and starting from scratch on learning about this all.  I read through it somewhat furiously, kind of like a hungry reader eats up the words of a juicy novel.  Why wasn't I aware of this?!  Why didn't anyone tell me?  I felt like I was actually understanding things about this disease that I'd until then, really only known a factoid or two about.  (It had to do with ticks and Lyme, CT, and was some weird disease that people over there got.  That was about all I knew before.)  What's worse, it started to feel relevant.  I didn't realize how common this infection had become and how common it had become for Fibro to actually turn out to be Lyme.  None of the Fibromyalgia resources that I trust and read carefully have mentioned Lyme at all, much less hypothesized that Lyme could be the cause we are all looking for.  None of them ever encouraged us to seek out a Lyme specialist and get checked out to at least rule out Lyme Disease.

I read this site from the perspective of, not someone who seriously thinks she may have Lyme, but rather from the perspective of someone who has a friend who went through it all and urged me to check it out for myself, just to be sure.  I was beginning to understand the technical stuff she'd tried to explain to me before.  (Fibro fog doesn't always allow for learning.)  After having read that page, Lyme now seemed a very remote possibility for me.  The more I learn from various sources, the more possible it seems that this might be something I've got.  I'm not convinced I have this infection, of course, but from what I've read, it seems I'm kind of a textbook case of Chronic Lyme Disease.

Today, I'm thinking I can no longer afford to assume that I'm not infected.  This is a serious illness and can kill under certain conditions.  I need to at least learn more about it and pursue an evaluation by a qualified LLMD (Lyme-Literate Medical Doctor).  There is no other option.  If I don't try to find out whether I'm infected or not, I'll never know.  I always tell people that if you are going to regret something, choose to risk regretting having DONE something, rather than having NOT DONE something.  At least you'll know if it was a bad idea, at worst.  If you never do it, you'll never even know if it was a bad idea or not.  So, I'm starting on my Lyme journey.

Since reading that first article, I've visited a few legitimate and helpful Lyme website and groups, asked for LLMD referrals from several sources, read more personal stories from members in all stages of their journeys, and watched a pretty good documentary about the topic, called "Under Our Skin", which happens to be available on Netflix if you have it, or Hulu online, if you'd like to watch it.  (It is less than 2 hours long.)  The trailer is also available on the film's website.  The film features many kinds of patients: newly diagnosed and starting treatment, severely ill, invisibly ill, mostly recovered, untreated, etc.  It also features several researchers and doctors, touched on the science of the spiral-shaped bacteria and the scientific difficulties of studying it (mostly in layman's terms) and the unfortunate controversy and crooked politics that have made treating this epidemic disease so expensive and difficult for most people who suffer with it.  While watching, I jotted down the names of anyone mentioned who might serve as a trusted resource of information or help to me or others looking for help with Lyme.  Many of these names are also listed at the website.  I would recommend watching this documentary as a good start in getting to understand the basics of Lyme disease and what it's like to get tested and treated for it.  The documentary itself has won many awards.  I was disappointed, however, in the lack of information regarding why testing is so difficult and inaccurate, though I'm reading more about iGeneX testing and how that is becoming a more trusted testing tool for Lyme.  I'm still learning about that.

Most recently, I read this national news article about someone whose spouse fell mysteriously ill and embarked on the Lyme journey.  A lot was learned on that journey first-hand, including the hot mess of political nonsense that continues to prevent many innocent victims from getting the care they deserve.  The article I read is actually an excerpt from a longer one, which you can read or listen to at the following link.  It's entitled "Chronic Lyme Disease: It's Time To Solve The Medical Mystery Inside An Enigma" By Laurie McClellan.


From what I've read, the most effective treatment for Chronic Lyme Disease, a bacterial infection that can affect any and every organ in the body, is a very long treatment of antibiotics.  If the bacteria are present, the antibiotics will find them and start to kill them off.  The die-off of bacteria end up having to be removed from the body by way of all the garbage-collecting organs, like liver and kidneys.  Many of you fibromites already know how taxing it can be on your livers to just take the prescription medications we all take to try to keep our symptoms reasonable.  Imagine your liver trying to clean up a very large amount of dead bacteria!  It can drain you in much the same way any flare-up can.  The term for this symptom flare-up that is caused by antibiotic treatment is the Herx reaction, short for "The Jarisch-Herxheimer Reaction".  You can learn more about it by searching the web, as many have described it in both scientific and personal terms.

Whether you have Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, MS, Lupus, ALS, Parkinson's, undiagnosed systemic symptoms, or aren't ill at all, I encourage you all to read at least the abbreviated version of the aforementioned article, watch the documentary, and learn more about Chronic Lyme.  Join the groups online.  Some good ones I'm in through Facebook are Turn the Corner Foundation, which stems from their full website, and Lyme Disease AwarenessLyme Disease Association, Inc. and International Lyme And Associated Diseases Society are also good websites to check out and learn more.

"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."
If you have Fibromyalgia, many Lyme patients in these groups will feel your frustration and assure you that Lyme is very likely the cause of your systemic symptoms, as it was discovered to be for them.  Although it's a definite possibility, know that these patients are not necessarily Lyme specialist doctors (LLMDs) or sure that all Fibromyalgia equals Lyme Disease.  But do consider the the fact that many of them were given a Fibromyalgia diagnosis and left to live with that as a final diagnosis, then tested and treated for Lyme and found relief.  Everyone is different and everyone needs to be considered individually.  Treatment has helped or even "cured" many already, but it can be expensive and taxing on the body.  I'm open to the possibility that Lyme is not the cause of my symptoms, but it could be for yours or for someone you know.  It takes time to learn enough about Chronic Lyme Disease and how to go about getting the best testing and treatment available, and consider the risks associated with embarking upon that arduous journey.  But I want to know.  I need to know.  I am going to select an LLMD, make arrangements to set up an appointment and travel to make it, bring my notes and questions, and find out what my options are.  If I don't seem likely to have Lyme, I leave knowing I've checked it out as best as I can and go back to living with Fibromyalgia.  If I do seem likely to have Lyme and the doctor offers treatment, I will try it knowing it will probably make me feel awful for a long time if it works.  I will take comfort in knowing that the suffering will end or ease up and I will have done what I could to minimize the damage.
 
Are any of you on the Chronic Lyme Disease journey, or have you completed it?  How have things gone for you?  What went well?  What didn't?  What have you learned?  Which websites or groups do you find most helpful?  I'd really like to read your comments and please leave any advice you may have for me, a beginner, as well as any of my curious readers.  Knowing is half the battle, eh?