People with Lyme Disease often get told their symptoms are in their heads. The reason it may seem this way is that they are — but not in the way people think. Lyme Disease can actually affect the brain and other parts of the nervous system, causing a variety of neurological symptoms.
Lyme is caused by the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi, which is usually transmitted through ticks. These ticks also tend to carry a number of other bacteria known as Lyme co-infections, like Bartonella and Babesia. When these bacteria infect the nervous system, the infection is called neuroborreliosis, Timothy J. Sellati, PhD, Global Lyme Alliance chief scientific officer, tells Bustle. This often happens in the later stages of the disease, when it has the chance to cross the blood-brain barrier.
Neuroborreliosis can be diagnosed through a combination of symptoms, physical examination, Lyme tests like the Western Blot and enzyme immunoassay tests, and detection of anti-Borrelia antibodies in cerebrospinal fluid. Up to one in 10 Lyme cases involve neurological symptoms, says Sellati.
"The root cause of symptoms associated with neuroborreliosis is inflammation in the brain," he says. "The bacterium that causes the disease can replicate and damage the peripheral nervous system and cross the blood-brain barrier to invade the central nervous system." Additional neurological symptoms may stem from inflammation due to activity of the immune system, Chirag Shah, MD, medical reviewer at PollMed, tells Bustle.
Lyme often goes undiagnosed or gets misdiagnosed, so if you're experiencing the following symptoms (especially along with other symptoms of Lyme Disease, like rashes, neck stiffness, and joint pain), consider asking your doctor about being tested for Lyme.
1. Facial Paralysis
One tell-tale sign of neurological Lyme Disease is Bell’s Palsy — paralysis or weakness on one side of the face, says Sellati. If you have Bell’s Palsy, half of your face may appear to droop.
2. Problems Coming Up With Words
Lyme can affect people's memory, especially when it comes to their vocabulary. "Some people report a dulling of their thoughts, a slowing of their ability to put those thoughts into words, difficulty in coming up with basic words in conversation," says Sellati. "Others report it became impossible to read or watch TV."
3. Involuntary Movements
4. Numbness And Tingling
People with neurological lyme sometimes experience damage to the peripheral nervous system. This may manifest as a numbness in the extremities or a tingling sensation, especially in the extremities, says Shah.
5. Nerve Pain
"Nerve pain that starts in the back and radiates down the legs" is a classic feature of neurological Lyme, says Sellati.
6. Brain Fog
Many people with Lyme experience a constant state of foggyheadedness. Jennifer Crystal, a Global Lyme Alliance columnist, describes this symptom as follows: "Imagine molasses seeping through your brain, pouring into all the crevices until your brain feels so full that you wonder if it will explode right out of your skull. Imagine that thick substance sticking to the synapses of your brain, dulling your thoughts, slowing your ability to put those thoughts into words." This is one of the hallmark symptoms of Lyme, and one of the most debilitating.
It this sounds like you, find a Lyme-literate doctor who can help you figure out if Lyme is what's causing your symptoms. Whether it's Lyme or something else, symptoms like these are important to get checked out. They may be in your brain, but they're most definitely not in your head.