I feel compelled to write about Lyme Disease, as three of my patients were diagnosed within one week this summer. Two of them had very atypical itchy rashes, but never saw a tick on their bodies. The third had no rash whatsoever, and was the only of the three to see an actual tick on herself. Luckily, all three patients had the insight to see a doctor and to get tested and treated promptly. However, the fatigue, aches, rash, joint pain (and in one case, Bell’s palsy, or facial paralysis) were problematic and persistent symptoms. Acupuncture and Chinese herbs can be helpful for all of these symptoms.
Lyme Disease got its name from Old Lyme, Connecticut, where many kids with arthritis-like symptoms were diagnosed after being bitten by deer ticks in the mid-1970s. Such cases became prevalent mainly in the northeastern United States, but now the disease has spread as far as California by a different but related tick on the northern Pacific coast. Lyme Disease has also been reported in Europe and Asia. The disease is caused by spirochetal bacteria called Borrelia burgdorferi that infected deer ticks transmit when attached to a host. Deer ticks are carried not only by deer, but my mice and other small animals and are often found in wooded areas. In the northeast, Lyme Disease cases have increased by more than 300% between 1993 and 2012.
Once the bacteria are transmitted through a tick bite, the poor victim may undergo an incubation period. It might take up to three weeks for symptoms to emerge, and usually they include: fatigue, joint pains, a bullseye rash, and fever. If untreated, the condition could be transmitted to the heart or the nervous system, and symptoms could last a lifetime.
The cure for Lyme Disease is a few weeks of antibiotic therapy and the best results come with early detection and treatment. Doctors base their Lyme diagnosis on a few factors: tick exposure, the typical bullseye rash, symptoms (like fever, joint and body aches), and certain blood test results (antibodies present in the bloodstream due to the bacteria), although these are not very specific. Apparently many patients go under-diagnosed because they don’t realize they’ve been bitten and sometimes the blood tests give false negative results (i.e., there are no antibodies detected despite bacterial infection), especially in the first 1-2 weeks. Doctors sometimes will ask patients to get retested after 2 weeks to allow the antibodies time to develop and emerge in blood test results. A TBD-4M test can reveal not only Lyme, but other tickborne illnesses that might be present as well.
Sometimes patients will experience debilitating fatigue once they begin antibiotics because the die-off of the spirochete can cause toxicity. This usually fades after a couple of days. During this time, it is important to supplement with probiotics (healthy bacteria capsules) to counteract this toxicity and to restore healthy flora to the gut.
In Chinese medicine, there isn’t really a one-size-fits-all diagnosis for Lyme Disease; it did not exist in ancient China and none of the old medical texts contain information about this tickborne illness specifically. However, there are many syndromes that could be analyzed based on the symptoms and stage of illness and treated according to the principles of Traditional Chinese medicine, like any modern disease. In some aspects, tickborne illnesses share categorical and symptom similarities with other parasitic disease syndromes in TCM.
Acupuncture can help regulate a person’s immunity and can also help alleviating the pain associated with Lyme Disease arthralgia. It is also very helpful for improving Bells Palsy. Chinese herbs can be used in conjunction with antibiotics and can ameliorate the side effects of these drugs. Herbal formulas used to dispel toxins have antimicrobial properties and can also bolster the qi of the individual to enhance their defenses, which undoubtedly have been lowered from the disease. The appropriate herbal formulas are determined on a case by case basis depending upon the stage and syndrome with which the patient presents. Many people successfully rehabilitate with a combination of antibiotics, herbs and acupuncture because these modalities a) kill and dispel the toxic bacteria b) nourish qi and blood to increase energy, immunity and healing and c) reduce inflammation in the joints to improve mobility and decrease pain levels.
For prevention, always be aware of ticks especially in wooded areas- wearing light colored clothing and tucking your socks into pant legs can make ticks more visible. After being in an infested area, check yourself (or have someone check you) for any ticks that might be on your clothing or body. If you have a tick attached to you, grasp it close to the mouth (or site of attachment) with a pair of tweezers and pull it off. Clean the area with warm water and/or alcohol. Ideally, saving the tick in a sealed jar to bring in for testing is helpful- this way, the source can be tested for potential bacteria before treatment.
For more about Lyme Disease, please see: http://www.cdc.gov/lyme/