Why Is Lyme Disease So Hard To Diagnose?

For some, a lyme disease diagnosis is fast and to the point, but for others finding the correct answer to what’s wrong takes more time and tests. It’s hard when you have to live with questions for some extended period of time before getting a final, sure diagnosis. So why is it so hard to diagnose Lyme disease in certain situations, but not others? This explanation from Anne R. Bass, MD, a rheumatologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, might help shed some light.

Why Do Doctor’s Struggle To Diagnose Lyme Disease?

Pinpointing this type of infection is not an exact science, and symptoms are not always crystal clear.

“Many people will develop a bulls-eye rash, which makes it fairly easy to diagnose,” she says. But this telltale symptom is sometimes faint or on hidden parts of the body, and some people don’t get one at all.

“Other early symptoms, like fever or aches and pains, could be attributed to a virus or flu,” says Bass. “So if you don’t see a rash, you might not even go to the doctor—or it’s possible your doctor might not recognize it.” (Some Lyme disease cases go away on their own, she adds, so it’s possible to have had it and never known.)

Bass says that anyone who’s experienced fatigue or joint pain for several months should think back to when their symptoms started, and whether they spent time in area of the country known for Lyme disease outbreaks. A blood test cannot confirm whether you are currently infected, but it can tell if you have been exposed to Lyme bacterium in the past. (It actually tests for antibodies, which develop a few weeks after a person has been infected and remain in the blood forever.) Doctors can use these test results, along with a person’s current symptoms, to make a diagnosis.

“But even these test results can be complex and confusing, especially for physicians who aren’t used to dealing with Lyme,” Dr. Bass says. Some doctors also believe that Lyme disease can be diagnosed without a positive blood test, she adds—although there’s no evidence that these methods are accurate or that antibiotics, in these cases, work any better than placebo.

– via Health News

When you learn about the history here, it’s easy to see that the struggle to nail down a diagnosis isn’t anything new. From the beginning Lyme disease has been slippery to prove, being called “the great imitator” since it can mimic the symptoms of other diseases.

A Long History Of Mysteries

In the ’70s, a cluster of adults and children in Lyme, Old Lyme, and East Haddam, Connecticut, began to develop fevers, swollen joints, and, most mysterious, an angry rash, especially after playing or hiking near rivers. The cases were most prevalent in deer-heavy areas, and scientists quickly discovered a common link: black-legged ticks that jump from deer to humans. Lyme disease was first identified by a medical entomologist in 1982.

Though recovery is usually speedy if you’re promptly treated with antibiotics, Lyme disease is a notoriously slippery condition to diagnose, especially outside the Midwest or Northeast, where it’s most common. Symptoms can mimic the flu and may not appear until about three weeks after infection, when it’s harder to detect (and, like syphilis in the 19th century, Lyme disease is known as “the great imitator” because its symptoms could be attributed to a number of illnesses). Fewer than 50 percent of Lyme disease patients can even recall a tick bite or a rash, so thorough questioning is vital when a doctor is making a diagnosis. Left untreated, the disease can travel to your heart, joints, and nervous system.

– via Science of Us

Have you been diagnosed with Lyme disease? Or do you worry you might have it, but with no medical confirmation yet?